Can we talk about sex? No. Just no. It doesn’t matter what you want to discuss or why, the answer is always no. Polite people don’t talk about sex in public. You rarely hear a casual conversation between acquaintances discussing their favorite vibrators. And it’s not just sex as such, even a part of our bodies, our reproductive system, is shrouded in secrecy. It’s dirty, it’s private, it has to be kept hidden. Don’t even mention it. If you have a problem, ask your doctor. If you are religious, ask your pastor instead. Religious authorities mandate that people shouldn’t even think let alone talk about sex before they are married.
In my opinion, a refusal to have open, casual, and normal conversations about sex is harmful. Whenever I try to suggest that the society should stop treating this subject as taboo, somebody will say: “Think about the children. If they overhear our kinky conversations, they will get traumatized.” This is going to be a multiple part series of blog posts. The first part is about children, because their wellbeing is generally considered the number one reason why people shouldn’t publicly talk about sex.
Here’s a story from my own life. I was 8 years old. Next to my school there was an old overgrown graveyard. After school I often played there with my classmates. One day I was walking through the graveyard alone. A man approached me. He said something to me. He was asking for something, but I didn’t understand what he wanted. He said something like: “Just do it, it won’t be hard for you.” I didn’t understand what exactly he wanted from me. All the time I was looking up at his face, then I glanced below at my eye level. His pants were open. His erect penis was out of his pants, right there in front of my face. I realized that he was asking me to touch him, but I couldn’t understand what exactly he wanted from me or why. At that moment I got confused. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, but I realized that something weird was happening. I had no clue what to do next, so I just turned around and ran away.
I never told my parents or my teachers about the incident. Not because of shame or fear or anything like that. I simply assumed that this incident must have been insignificant. Something weird happened with me today, whatever. It’s not like I always told my parents about every weird thing I saw throughout the day. Back when I was 8 years old, I was completely clueless about sex or sexual abuse. I didn’t even understand that the thing I had seen that day was an erect penis. My parents taught me to fear strangers who offered me candy. They failed to teach me to also fear strangers who pulled out their dicks in front of me.
Moreover, let’s assume I had tried to tell some adult about what had happened. What was I supposed to say? “I met an odd man who showed me ‘something’?” I knew nothing about male and female genitals; I didn’t know words for them. If I had tried to talk to an adult, I wouldn’t have been able to accurately describe what had happened. I can imagine my mother reacting to that: “You saw ‘something’; that doesn’t sound alarming.”
Yes, children, including very young ones, need to have some basic understanding about what is sex. Even more importantly, they need to understand what is sexual abuse and how to recognize potentially dangerous situations. As a child, I literally walked into a pedophile without having any clue that I was in danger. I got lucky. Even though the man clearly had wanted a handjob from me (or maybe a blowjob, I never really understood what exactly he was asking), I managed to run away. Yet I failed to inform my teachers at school. I was assaulted right in front of my school, and the chances are that I wasn’t this man’s only victim, he must have approached also other kids from my school. If I had told my teachers that there was a pedophile roaming around my school, they could have done at least something (call the police, warn other kids to stay away from the graveyard).
You have to teach children about human anatomy and their bodies. A girl shouldn’t freak out on the day she experiences her first menstruation. At 13 I already knew where babies come from, I knew why I was bleeding, and I wasn’t surprised. Nonetheless, there was a problem. Nobody had given me any menstrual pads in advance. Nor did I know where to purchase or how to use them. Nor did I want to ask my mother. If adults don’t talk about some subject, children notice the sense of secrecy, they understand that this topic is taboo. I believed that human bodies down there were icky and that nobody talked about such topics. Thus I didn’t ask my mother.
A week later, my mother found a pile of blood-soaked underwear in the laundry bin. She called me and angrily explained about sanitary pads and how to use them. She was angry, because I hadn’t asked her on the first day, which is why now she needed to wash a pile of bloody underwear. According to my mother, I should have asked her about the topic. Yet she herself had previously subtly taught me that people don’t talk about their genitals. That’s called “bad parenting.” The taboo nature of the subject means that children are afraid to ask questions. Adults don’t talk about their reproductive systems, genitals, or sex, hence a confused child won’t be comfortable to ask about their problem.
And in my case the problem (having no clue how to use menstrual pads or where to get them) wasn’t even that serious. There are teenagers who actually need medical attention, because something is very wrong with their bodies. I can only imagine that such children are also reluctant to ask for help. “I heard that menstruation isn’t supposed to be painful, something might be wrong with my body, but I really don’t want to talk with my parents about it,” is not something a child should be thinking.
By the time I was 16, we had sex education lessons at school. The guest teacher told us about human reproductive anatomy, STIs and contraception. “Use condoms. If you are in a monogamous relationship and both of you are STI free, then there are other contraception methods available.” That’s about it.
I know I got lucky. There was no misinformation in my sex educations lessons, and it sure was better than the abstinence only crap teens get in other countries. But this still was inadequate. How exactly do people have sex? How to make it pleasant? What was I supposed to do? “Put a condom on the penis, then place it inside a vagina” didn’t seem like a sufficient amount of information. I had to learn about sex on my own. Enter online porn. After watching some porn, I started wondering about how realistic it was. Then I started looking for online articles about sex. There was lots of contradictory information, so I pirated a bunch of books via torrents in order to cross compare all the information and try to figure out what was factually correct and what was misinformation. I’m a person who tends to diligently research available information. This is why I was lucky not to do anything particularly stupid when I first started having sex.
Unfortunately, many other young people are less lucky than I was. They experience unwanted pregnancies or contract STIs. Sometimes they don’t even fully understand what is consent. Or what it means to act responsibly. Lack of proper, factually correct, and evidence-based education results in misinformation. When accurate information isn’t available, a child will pick up various rumors and myths. This increases the likelihood that something will go wrong, and the child will somehow hurt themselves (or get hurt by a sexual predator). And teens will have sex regardless of whether teachers tell them to wait until marriage or no.
Personally, I do think that most 17 years old people aren’t emotionally mature enough for having sex. I certainly wasn’t. At that age, I managed to get stuck in a dysfunctional relationship, and I now regret some of the things I did back then. Frankly, even a few 30 years old people seem too immature for having sex. But at least I got lucky, because I didn’t harm my health in any way. It doesn’t matter that most adults would prefer teens not to have sex. Moralizing and talking about abstinence won’t help. Teens just won’t listen. Therefore the best we can do in order to reduce harm for children is to educate them. This way they are less likely to do something extremely stupid and suffer significant and permanent harm.
I also believe that the burden to provide sex education rests upon schools and the state in general. A few children get lucky, and they have parents who succeed at providing good sex education. Great for them! Unfortunately, many (most?) children aren’t so lucky. Listening to a parent who is obviously uncomfortable and squeamish about the words they say feels uncomfortable for a child. My mother provided a perfect example for how not to talk with your child about sex. When I was 17, she found out that I had a boyfriend. At first she panicked, started acting incoherently and was plain annoying. Then she called me for “the talk.” She told me to avoid pregnancy with the calendar method. She never told me why she disliked condoms, but I did find out from her that hormonal contraceptives are “incredibly harmful for a woman’s health.” She also had some really nasty attitudes towards sex in general; she considered oral and anal sex perverse, according to her homosexual or trans people were sick (she still doesn’t know that I’m agender and bisexual). My mother is pretty much the only person on this planet with whom I absolutely refuse to talk about my sex life or sex in general. I mean, right now I’m talking about sex with absolute strangers online (no worries—my mother doesn’t speak English, so she cannot read my blog).
Of course, I’m not suggesting that 7 years old children should be shown hardcore porn videos for the sake of “education.” That would be a pretty awful idea. And I understand that we can disagree about what exactly is “age appropriate” sex education. It’s tricky to determine exactly how much information a child of some specific age really needs in order to promote their safety. But our society’s current religiously inspired attitudes that discourage normal casual conversations about sex are harmful. And it also harms children. Intentionally keeping them blissfully ignorant about this topic only creates more problems.
This blog post is brought to you courtesy of Poland, where politicians came up with the ridiculous idea to pass legislation that treats sex education as “pedophilia.” Basically, the government came up with the idea to ban sex education and criminalize “the promotion of underage sexual activity.”
Of course, American Christians with their abstinence only sex education also contributed. And their absolutely disgusting virginity pledges and purity culture. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
Jiminy crickets. Brussels should suspend (and if necessary revoke) Poland’s EU membership until they smarten up. I shouldn’t be surprised though, coming from a country that attempted to legalize Intimate Partner Violence and outlaw abortion.
You are absolutely correct! I at least got the menstruation lecture ( thank you Kotex pamphlet) but anything about sex was treated like leprosy. Even a book I read , written for adults from the late 50s, described a woman’s orgasm as something that happens only after a woman had been married for many years. It was never described as pleasurable , not even hinted around . Thank god for the late 60s woman’s lib movement! I got a better understanding of my own body . Unfortunately, I also had to deal with my mother’s repressive oppressively toxic southern baptist upbringing which was no picnic to deal with as a curious teenager
Andreas Avester says
That’s impossible. Just look at the Brexit fiasco.
But I do agree that EU should put pressure on member states that have human rights problems.
Andreas Avester says
I grew up in an atheist family. I have had unsupervised access to the Internet since I was 15.
Stories like yours remind me how lucky I am, because many other people have had it much worse. Yet I still feel like complaining that the sex education I got wasn’t as good as it ought to be.
Regarding age appropriate sex education – first rule is, don’t make sex education separate from other education. When a child learns names of body parts, don’t exclude the genitals. Include the function of the reproductive system in curriculum about anatomy and physiology. Include teaching about safety from pedophiles in general teaching about personal safety. Nowadays there are good curricula about bad touch vs good touch, bad secrets vs good secrets and so forth, parents and teachers don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
M Smith says
My parents never talked to me about sex; literally never. Apart from a couple of cagey conversations in a church youth group, biology classes, and one (fantastic) discussion on sex and drugs at school when I was 15, all of my knowledge came from playgrounds, FHM and porn.
Reading this I never really thought about how vulnerable that made me as a young person, but your experience really makes sense. What would I have done? What would I have even thought?!
Now I have a beautiful 9-year-old daughter, in a church-school, and I have no idea what their sex-ed approach is… I should probably find out! And then figure out what I should say to supplement it; I mean, I don’t exactly have any experiences to fall back on…
Andreas Avester says
M Smith @#7
“Church-school” already sounds terrible on its own. Personally, I’d expect the worst.
Online you can find guides about how a parent should talk about sex with their child.
There are also books aimed at children that explain how sex works. For a 9 years old child you can find some educational book aimed at that age range with cute cartoon drawings and age-appropriate explanations.