Saturday, April 22, 2006

What we need to tell children about sex

I've mentioned before that, to my dismay, one of the most popular search engine keywords that brings visitors to The Third Path is "10yo"; I wrote a scholarly analysis of Judge Samuel Alito's dissent in a case involving the so-called "strip-search of a ten-year-old girl." While that blog entry didn't have anything remotely resembling the content that one presumes someone is searching for with the keyword "10yo," it still gets a lot of hits, as I'm sure this entry will also. The situation brings up a delicate question:

What do we need to tell kids about sex and sexuality?

I present the following as a religiously neutral primer for sex education. The first items are appropriate even for very young children; some of the later items are aimed at older kids.
  • Sex isn't bad or evil, but it is often complicated and sometimes dangerous, and best left until you are grown-up enough to handle it. (The same is true of driving a car, by the way.)

  • Having any kind of sex where you and your partner don't really want to is always a very bad thing. (On the flip side, though, just because you and another person really want to have sex, that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea.) You always have the right to say, "No, I don't want to," and expect the other person to respect your decision. You also always have the right to tell an adult that you trust about anyone who tries to have sex with you, or anyone who does anything to you or with you that makes you feel uncomfortable — especially if it involves your "swimsuit area" or theirs.

  • Both boys and girls experience dramatic changes in their bodies and in their feelings as they move from childhood into adolescence. Those changes can be very confusing, but they are a normal part of growing up. Everyone else gets confused by those changes, too.

  • Certain kinds of sex, even between children, can lead to pregnancy. It is possible to get pregnant the very first time you ever have sex. Having a child when you are ready to provide a stable, loving home and take care of the child, is a wonderful thing, but having a child when you're not ready makes your life very complicated, and may be a bad thing for your child. Abortion and adoption are never easy or happy options; it's much better to wait until you're ready before you take a chance of getting pregnant.

  • Having sex can also expose you to certain very unpleasant diseases, some of which do not have any cure. Even forms of sex that do not have a risk of pregnancy may still have a risk of disease. Your partner may appear to be healthy, but may still have germs that could make you sick, even if they don't know it.

  • There are ways that you can reduce the risks of pregnancy and diseases, but they are not foolproof. If used incorrectly, sexual protection may not offer much protection at all. It is also important to know that there are many rumors you may hear about ways to reduce the risk that aren't true. For example, doing it while standing on your head does not reduce the risk at all. Other rumors might not sound that obviously silly, but they may still be just as wrong. When you are old enough to decide that you want to have sex, be sure that you know the truth about how to be careful. It is true, though, that the best way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sex.

  • There are many different ways that people have sex. There are almost as many ways to have sex as there are people. Most people prefer to have sex between a man and a woman, but some people prefer to have sex between two men, between two women, or even among more than two people at a time.

  • Most religions have specific teachings about sex. You should follow your own religious and moral beliefs about whether, when, and how you have sex, but keep in mind that other people may have very different religious beliefs. You should respect other people's beliefs; especially, you should never try to get someone else to do something that violates their religious or moral beliefs about sex.

I recently saw the movie The Blue Lagoon, in which Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields have been stranded on a tropical island without any grown-ups since a shipwreck when they were young children. As little kids, they were told that Santa Claus would bring them presents, that the Boogey Man would get them if they were bad, and that babies come from the cabbage patch. As they grew into their teens, though, those stories no longer served them well. The onset of sexual feelings, without any context for those feelings, left these two kids shipwrecked a second time.

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