I’m the executive director for Answer, a national organization dedicated to providing and promoting unfettered access to sexuality education for young people and the adults who teach them.
There is so much misunderstanding today about what sexuality education is. Most people tend to think it only has to do with preventing pregnancy and infections. But when we refer to “sexuality education,” we’re talking far more holistically. This enables us to promote overall sexual health and education, while also ensuring that young people know how to prevent an unintended pregnancy and STDs.
We believe strongly that sexuality education should start early, meaning it should be basic at younger ages and build in complexity as a young person grows. It’s an egregious mistake when lessons on sexuality—whether at home or in school—don’t begin until the teen years.
I always think in terms of other school subjects. It’s age-appropriate to teach tenth graders geometry, but that doesn’t mean the first time a student receives math should be in the tenth grade. Math instruction starts very early with counting, addition and subtraction, then becomes more complex with multiplication, division, algebra and so on.
The same should be true for education around human sexuality. Earliest lessons should cover basic information and setting boundaries: What are my body parts called? Which body parts should be shown in public? Which should not? These lessons provide the foundation for teaching about relationships, self-esteem, body image and more later on. Each year of sexuality education should supplement foundational learning and skills to enable young people to make decisions relating to their sexual health and relationships as they get older.
Parents play a key role in educating their children about sexuality, but they aren’t always equipped with the knowledge or skills to do so comfortably and effectively. This is why sexuality education must be a partnership between parents and professionals with expertise in child and adolescent development and human sexuality. We all want young people to be safe, healthy and happy. Yet children are receiving age-inappropriate messages about gender, sex and sexuality from the media starting at younger and younger ages. The media should not be educating children about sexuality—parents working in collaboration with trained experts should.
Adults who teach about sexuality need to be well trained in how to do so using the best methods possible, and schools and social service organizations have a responsibility to ensure that only trained professionals are charged with teaching this topic. We must increase educators’ understanding of and comfort with the many types of technology available so that they can reach youth in engaging, compelling ways. We can’t just address the potential dangers that come with certain interactive forms of technology. Schools and organizations must invest resources to increase their own use of technology and social media and ensure their entire staff is committed to and facile with using these tools.
To teach young people effectively, we must believe in young people. We must believe in the great potential they have to make healthy, well-thought-out decisions when they’ve been taught age-appropriate and medically accurate information about sexuality, and how to use that information to protect their health. We must understand that they will make mistakes, just as adults make mistakes.
We can help minimize those mistakes by allocating more time in the school curriculum to sexuality education. We can focus content beyond pregnancy and diseases. We can ensure that online resources, such as Sexetc.org (Answer’s award-winning, teen-written sexual health website), are easily accessible to young people. We can offer support to parents and other caregivers in reinforcing their values as well as the life-enhancing, sometimes life-saving, information to which young people are entitled.