It’s safe to say that most of you have probably heard of the topic: Comprehensive Sex Education. It’s no secret that it’s considered one of the more controversial and high-profile topics in the world currently, both nationwide and locally in our own communities. Both politically and morally, we all have questions, concerns, and opinions about the idea of what should be taught to our children regarding sexuality, their bodies, and relationships. I’m here to offer support in advocating for what you feel is right and appropriate for your child. However, I also want to make sure that the information we base our decisions on is accurate and not rooted in fear, apprehension, or the unknown. I want to tell you what I wish I had been told growing up and what I want to be sure to provide for my own children in the hopes that it will spark some deeper thinking into what would work for your family.

Everyone practices spirituality and religion a little differently and I consider it a beautiful part of the world we live in that we are able to do so. I’d like to give a little backstory about why this topic is so important to me. I was raised in a very small rural town in a very conservative church practicing a very conservative religion. Sex was simply not a topic up for discussion and anatomy was unimportant outside of learning how to reproduce. Interestingly enough, I’m now a sex therapist advocating for a sex-positive education. (There’s a long story in there I assure you!) However, I’ve heard so many different points of view surrounding the topic of sex education. Many of those discussions include Christian values and fears of non-biblical messages pushed on our children. I’d like to provide my perspective and experience, as both a sex therapist and a Christian parent.

Comprehensive sex education is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning that intends to provide knowledge, attitudes, skills, and values to make healthy, educated, and confident choices about their body and its functions. Now, I can tell you what comprehensive sex education is not. It is not teaching children to “have sex and be ok with it.” It is not teaching children to toss aside their morals or to turn their back on religious beliefs. It is simply education that helps to protect, prevent, and build confidence in areas that have been severely neglected in the past Comprehensive sex education aims to keep our children safe, healthy, and empowered to make educated decisions.

What I Wish I Would Have Learned

While I was growing up, I was not exposed to a lot of conversations about healthy relationships, safe sexual encounters, or even how my own anatomy functioned. Sure, there was talk about sex, but I can’t remember much of it being helpful or accurate. In fact, most of it was from peers or movies. It certainly wasn’t empowering or educational. From what I remember, which isn’t much, it did not go past the basic anatomy for reproductive purposes. Most of it consisted of a very strong message to remain abstinent or we would all end up pregnant with STI’s. My church communicated the risk to our souls as well as the disappointment our future spouses would experience if we did not practice abstinence. There was a huge lack of empowering knowledge and a whole lot of fear and shame tactics. I was genuinely fearful of sex, intimacy, and what role I was supposed to play in a relationship. I didn’t know why this was so important and entered young adulthood naïve and vulnerable.

Anatomy and Why We Should Talk About It

I wish that I had been given more information about anatomy and what is considered typical and what is a concern. As mentioned above, there was a general overview but knowing what I know now, it simply wasn’t enough. The male and female anatomy varies so greatly that a five-minute conversation about the most textbook example of a vulva or penis doesn’t even cover the basics. So many people spend a lot of their time wondering if their anatomy is normal or if something is wrong. The most concerning parts are that they are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask. Conversation, education, and communication attempting to normalize the genitals are also a very important part of the body that are necessary to address concerns early in development. It can aid in preventing further development of insecurities, discomfort, or medical issues. If we are experiencing pain or under the impression that something is wrong with our leg, we would be much more likely to seek confirmation or evaluation. Why should our reproductive anatomy or genitals be any different?

I teach my children the correct anatomical terms for their genitals. They know to use the words vulva and vagina. It can seem funny or cute to use other nicknames, but it also comes with some downsides. For example, if a child has been sexually abused, the knowledge of correct terminology can be critical in reporting. Additionally, predators who are grooming children typically use nicknames for genitals. We want our children to be able to communicate with us and for us to know what’s actually going on when they do.

Relationships

Comprehensive sex education provides much more than identifying anatomy and its functions. Healthy relationships are an integral piece of the curriculum. This could encompass everything from early dating, friendships, bullying, family dynamics, and anything in between. How relationships are modeled at home is important but what happens when they aren’t the best example? The reality of the world we live in is that domestic violence, conflict, and abuse are pervasive issues. Comprehensive sex education teaches what healthy and respectful relationships look like and allows children to personalize what they want from future relationships. They are able to learn the red flags for potentially abusive situations, how to protect themselves from assault, what bullying looks like and the impacts it can have on others, and respectful techniques for communication and the expression of needs.

My oldest child is six years old and my youngest is three years old. They already know the term “body boundaries” and why it’s important personally as well as why it’s critical to respect others’ space and boundaries. They also know why communication is important and how it can be hurtful if not used respectfully. Bullying is something that our society has struggled with throughout history. Yes, bullying is also a problem within the religious or spiritual community. I remember growing up and being taught to stay away from or shun kids whom the church community thought were not behaving to the standard put in place. Of course, we heard older adults speak negatively about these kids and their families and we replicated the same behavior. We were the bullies. We all wish we could go back and do some things over, and this is likely the circumstance that hits the hardest for me. We had anti-bullying rallies and lessons, but we really weren’t taught what healthy communication looked like and we certainly weren’t taught to value and respect others who deviated from social norms. I wish we had been taught that it’s ok to be different, it’s ok to live authentically and that we don’t have to convince, or pressure, others to change to fit into a certain stereotypical mold of behavior and appearance.

“Age Appropriate.” What Does That Even Mean?

Oh man, this is what I’ve been waiting for! How many times while having a discussion about movies, books, TV shows, etc. have you heard or used the term “age appropriate.” Well, I’m going to assume it’s a lot and it’s a HUGE friction point when discussing sex ed. Here’s my (probably unpopular) opinion. Are we using “age appropriate” as a way to avoid uncomfortable topics and questions? We might feel like our younger children aren’t ready to hear about reproductive anatomy or genitals. We might not understand how it is appropriate for our children to learn about dating and relationships if we believe they aren’t engaging in that behavior anyway. Is it because we might be uncomfortable with the words vulva, vagina, penis, labia, clitoris, testicles, etc.? If that is a concern and we are viewing the terminology as “crude” or “yucky” then I’m going to direct you to the section above about anatomy. It’s interesting to think that terms such as hoo-ha, wiener, va-jay-jay (or whatever else) have become more normalized and accepted than the actual anatomical language used by clinicians and physicians.

Children begin exploring their genitals as young as toddlerhood and some studies have reported that age to be even younger. It’s never too early to begin teaching our children about their bodies and their functions. Why are we putting it off? Is it for the sake of our children or is it because we don’t know the answers? Are we uncomfortable with the topics? Are we unsure how to approach the conversations? Listen, I’m right there with you and I’m a sex therapist! It’s still a constant question for me when deciding how and when to talk to my own children about these things.

What Can Comprehensive Sex Education Provide?

In my own experience, I was taught that talking about sex, my anatomy, or my relationships was inappropriate or gross. So, I didn’t ask questions and I went along with things that I really wish I hadn’t. The message I received fostered a heavy sense of embarrassment about my body and its development. I was also taught that these topics didn’t have a place in the church, which was a large part of my life throughout childhood and adolescence. I had nowhere to talk about it.

One of the most important details about comprehensive sex education is that is a system that builds upon itself as a child grows. It is not teaching our kindergarteners how to have safe sex. Not even close. A general curriculum and topics based on grade level can be visited and explored in detail here. Additionally, this curriculum is not teaching a child to change their opinions or beliefs but rather how to maintain basic human respect for those individuals that believe something different. Most importantly, this curriculum is preparing children to behave safely, confidently, and empowered. A huge myth regarding sex ed is that it teaches children to have sex at a younger age. Nope. Actually, it has shown to have a significant positive impact on an adolescent’s decision to wait to have sex until they are older. A longer read about common myths and misconceptions about comprehensive sex education can be visited here.