Beyond the headlines…Talking about sex and sexuality with our children as they grow…

Beyond the headlines…Talking about sex and sexuality with our children as they grow…

Why safeguarding our children makes this topic too important to be a political football.

As an educator who has had a major focus on safeguarding through much of my career, the recent politicisation of relationships and sex education worries me. This is not a space to be politically partisan – to be super-clear given that I write this in an election year.

Creating division and danger around the topic simultaneously creates a gulf of silence, taboo, misinformation, curiosity. Setting up suspicion about what’s happening in school and polarisation about content and delivery of sex education prevents appropriate partnership between parents and educators which are in the best interests of children and teens especially.

This narrative focuses way too much on sex as the headline event, and not so much on the important aspect of education. Which does not mean inappropriate exposure, but a carefully titrated readiness for growth within the world as it is.

I come to this with the health, safety, and wellbeing of children, teens, and young adults totally at the heart of what I do. If I am on any side, I am firmly on the side of family life being as healthy, thriving, and inclusive as possible in being the launchpad it ought to be for happy people with happy futures. This means helping children understand and love their bodies, be responsible for themselves, and to know about how to navigate relationships and intimacy in safe, healthy, respectful – and joyful ways.

I am also firmly on the side of schools and educators as providing an important safe, objective, and suitable secondary resource in this very important part of all our lives.

Scaremongering stories of extremes of inappropriateness in terms of what is delivered in schools need to be treated with great care and – in my view – with a vat of salt. The vast majority of what is covered in schools by teachers, PSHCE and RSE specialists is very carefully calibrated. And still pretty cautious and conservative – despite what scandalous headlines might alert you to.

When the government announced recently that they would ‘protect our kids from radical sex education’ they have given some age-related guidance:

  • No puberty information before Year 4
  • No sex education until Year 5 (9-10 years old)
  • Nothing on consent, gender identity, contraception, STIs or abortion until 13.
  • No explicit discussion of sexual activity before year 9

The last 3 bullets feel a little like the sex education equivalent of King Canute sitting resolutely on the beach whilst the tide of reality washes in.

Image: The Print Collector / Getty Images

The tide of reality – relationships and sex education.

  • Most girls will be well into puberty by the end of Year 5. The average age of the onset of puberty is 10 down from 14 in the 1980s. Some girls start puberty aged 8. Some later. It’s not unusual for girls to have started their periods before secondary school.
  • By 14, between 40 and 50% of young people have received explicit images on their phones – of peers, whether solicited or unsolicited. So the consent piece really needs approaching a little earlier given that the sending and sharing of such material is a criminal offence.
  • Children and teenagers have eyes to see and notice from an early age that there are families with two mummies or two daddies. They also notice that there are people around them who manifestly express their gender in diverse ways. They see this on the streets, in shops, in cafes, with peers, and in the music and musicians they revere, the influencers they follow, in the online spaces they inhabit. Ok, so that’s everywhere?
  • Fluidity in terms of gender and sexuality has been part of the human picture -especially in adolescence. From Enid Blyton’s George in the Famous Five – the bravest and most glamorous character in the group – to gender-bending in Shakespeare…we can open our eyes to see that there has always been space for the non-binary. Some more recognised than others and in surprising religious spaces- Hijras in South Asian history – mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Xaniths in Oman.
  • In developmental terms adolescence often does involve uncertainty, exploration, fluidity in terms of identity and sexuality. For a small proportion – a very small proportion of people, this may actually be gender dysphoria. ONS data citing the Census 2021 data puts the percentages of those who reported their gender identity as being different from their sex at birth at 0.55% in England, 0.4% in Wales and in that hub of Woke that is London, it was 0.91%. It’s not exactly at epidemic proportions. It needs to be better understood both societally and close up with the individual. Changes in a young person’s gender expression does not mean they are or will be transgender – it might – but they will grow up and grow through to whatever outcome with much less of a struggle if they aren’t left in the cold with it.
  • Experiencing recognition about difference, accessing objective advice in a supportive, respectful environment, and being able to make meaning of the way people experience their gender with responsible adults, carers, and professionals in schools is important and protective.
  • On the Consent, STIs and Contraception front…let’s just address reality. From Year 9 onwards (sometimes earlier), the safeguarding picture in schools involves serious incidents of sexual peer-on-peer assault emerging from the party scene. This sometimes happens earlier in the primary years – because incidents of harmful sexual behaviours have boosted along with the mental health problems being experienced earlier.
  • Safeguard leads in school could tell you – but they rightly can’t to protect confidentiality – but here are some truths that would be universally recognised about risky behaviours and the sex lives of teens. From the age of 13, whether it’s in the context of a house party that has got out of hand, drink or drug intoxication in young people contributes to sexual encounters going badly wrong.  Equally typical in the 13-16 picture– hookups in the park in summer time gatherings…
  • We see problems with consent. Problems with ignorance. If your primary objective is to avoid the menace of teen pregnancy, anal and oral sex sounds like a good idea – seemingly risk-free and ‘normed’ if you’ve already had a diet of porn. It has been well documented that oral sex for some becomes an early teenage rite of passage – and often coming into play in order to ‘deliver’ to an expectant / entitled / urgent ‘partner’.
  • Only a few days ago, the Evening Standard released their Special Investigation on Misogyny and harassment in school – and these revealed that by Year 9 the sexual harassment of girls is familiar, extreme, and even normalised. It has been cited as a significant factor in the gap in mental health that emerges between boys and girls in the early teens.
  • https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/violence-against-women-girls-pornography-misogyny-schools-education-b1160783.html
  • https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/girls-victims-sexual-harassment-schools-misogyny-abuse-andrew-tate-b1160773.html
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001wq87 (All in the Mind – Radio 4 feature on Girls’ mental health

Not enough has changed since Everyone’s Invited, and the Children’s Commissioner’s report that followed, ‘Things I wish my parents had known’. Added to which in the Guardian, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police called for a national strategy to counter the increasing violence and sexual violence against women and girls, described as ‘eye watering’.  

https://www.theguardian.com/society/article/2024/jun/04/met-chief-says-millions-of-men-are-danger-to-women-and-girls-in-england-and-wales

If only governments have been as keen to deliver on the online protection legislation as they have to react to sensationalised and over-egged reports on ‘radical’ sexual education in schools.

I would particularly look at the work of Miriam Cates MP who commissioned a report about ‘What’s been taught in our schools’. This created a media furore and is still referred to despite its inaccuracies. “Children in our schools have been exposed to a plethora of deeply inappropriate, wildly inaccurate, sexually explicit, damaging materials in the supposed name of sex education.” This apparently included graphic descriptions of oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and the magic number of 72 different genders.

Some of these more high ticket allegations were found to come from references to the works of vloggers who have never worked in schools. Lessons on sexual pleasure in schools – when delivered by outside providers – are highly supervised. The lesson plans are rigorously checked, and the delivery is supervised. The aim is to enable a frank talk that counters the messages picked up from pornography and other online influences – like Andrew Tate. Dr Sophie King-Hill – a Senior Fellow at Birmingham University, working in the Sex Education field for 20 years expressed concern at the Miriam Cates report as being misleading and sensationalist and aimed at proposing dangerous curbs on important work in schools.

If safeguarding issues emerge in a cohort of young people with the influence of – for instance extreme porn or extremist misogyny, then it is important to unpick that with the group in order to safeguard them. Not only those directly affected, but those involved in the sharing and the rumour mongering and the exaggerations that follow. Children and teens are surveyed regularly and the outcomes often reveal that the work currently done in schools is not keeping pace with what is actually happening in their lives.

In order to be safe, stay safe, and be the bosses of their bodies, our children need to be able to understand their sexual selves without shame or fear. They need reliable, respectful, and responsible adults – primarily their parents and caregivers – to be their compass point and their go-to resource for truthful, accurate, and age-appropriate information. Only the parent or care-giver can deliver this in terms of their family values. And the school should also be able to provide a safe space for education about society, relationships, boundaries, health as a back-up.  

As an educator, specialising in safeguarding, however, I would say this – parents tend not to be on the front foot with this. And for good reason. Most of us don’t have great modelling from our parents in terms of family-based relationships and sex education.

How many of us had a great experience of open, honest, compassionate, objective discussion? How many of us noticed our parents white-knuckle their way through it? How many of us squirmed and rejected the embarrassment of it – largely because it had been left too late and too long?

The coyness in our own template of how we were taught about sex, along with the rudimentary formal scientific line drawings, means that often we don’t follow the earlier cues that we get as parents around our own children’s natural curiosity about their bodies, about the pleasure of their bodies and inadvertently shut our eyes to it, or shut the moment down. Quite often parents wait to be asked – which really puts the responsibility for sex education onto the child. And in the void left by our silence, stigma slips in, and Google takes over.

WE are fearful that we might over-sexualise our children by being upfront- but the research is not with this theory. And frankly there is a long line of other competing providers who will do it for us. IN the Netherlands, and in comparison between different states in the US, those educational and cultural approaches which favour proactive, pragmatic, accurate and non-judgmental delivery of information which equips kids with the information before they need it – which is the only way of actually empowering people to be informed in their decisions – then better outcomes include:

  • Delaying sexual exploration /embarkation.
  • Fewer teen pregnancies and teen abortions.
  • Fewer STIs
  • Fewer regrets about early experiences
  • Improved body image (think about it – is it better to know and use scientific terms confidently or to be more familiar with the colloquial… gyatt, fanny, bunda, junk, lady-garden, muff, wang, dick, prick etc etc)
  • Protection from sexual predators (less likely to target the properly-informed who clearly talk to responsible adults)
  • Fewer barriers to accessing healthcare, by being able to speak clearly to health professionals.

Back in my day, if I heard about a vagina, about anal, or about a 69, I would be able to speculate with friends, or look it up in the dictionary. I would have got a kind of answer. But it might not have quite been satisfactory to the undertones I might have picked up as a young person. Nowadays, looking that up online could take and would take our children quite literally anywhere.

We live in a world where children have free access to the good, the bad, and the very worst sort of unfiltered advice via each others’ smartphones. And using 4G, that is well nigh impossible to monitor and prevent. The second a child knows how to google, they know how to search up back door ways into banned online material. Pinterest -for instance- is often used as a covert conduit to Tiktok.

Even if your child does not have their own smartphone or device, they are never more than a peer away from one. Online access for children is early and there is a huge spectrum in terms of parenting approach – from unfettered and negligent, through to prohibited.

There are variances in opinion about what should be said and when in schools. And in my experience as an educator, to a large extent, many parents choose to follow the lead set by the school – rather than the other way around. Schools, teachers, and parents tend to err on the side of caution.

Brook – a 60 year old charity – which has played a pioneering role in promoting sexual health and leading providers of training for young people in schools – speak of the approach often being ‘too little, too late. This was in November 2023. 3 years after the updated statutory guidance launched in the UK in 2020.   Similarly, in the aftermath of the Everyone’s Invited movement which came into focus in the UK in 2021, the Children’s Commissioner’s report, helping to unpick the disclosures of sexual harassment and abuse online, advised parents to ‘Talk early, talk often’. It’s well worth a read. Published in December 2021, it gives a clear sense of the timeline and the impacts of online exposure to sexual material, and the effects it has on young people.

https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/news/the-things-i-wish-my-parents-had-known-young-peoples-advice-on-talking-to-your-child-about-online-sexual-harassment/

The new updated age-related guidelines add more red mist to this fraught topic. The broad brush strokes guidance that schools should not approach the teaching of sex until 9+ places the onus firmly on parents to take the lead and ensure the information their children are getting is match fit for the world they are in.

We’re not very good at talking about sex and sexuality in general in the UK. And elsewhere. I have contacts in my network who are GPs who tell me that parents ask them to deliver the information on their behalf, or come across teens whose awareness and ability to name their parts or understand the fundamentals is adrift.

Others who work in A&E tell me that alongside the rise of access to pornography ever younger, thanks to smartphones and 4G mean that there are more youngsters than ever whose early sexual experimentation has been fast tracked to involve injury. The truth is that in the gaps left by parent reluctance and objective, age appropriate guidance, pornography becomes a source of information and for some, addiction.

It means that before a teen even approaches becoming sexually active, they may have had repeated exposure to pornography even pre-puberty. The latest research tells us that the average age children see porn for the first time is between 9 and 10, down from 11 pre-pandemic. The norming of advanced sexual practices, commercialised for instant visual and sensual delight, poses multiple safeguarding risks to young people:

  • Completely unrealistic and unattainable ideas about bodies of either gender. Leading to unhealthy shame and unnecessary suffering by comparison with real, growing bodies.
  • All the ‘bang for your buck’ but no relational nuance, no intimacy, no modelling of consent.
  • Instant gratification that slower, tenderer real life interactions cannot compete with.
  • Very low on values, principles, integrity. Very high on urgency and entitlement.
  • Very high correlation between exposure to pornography and incidents of harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) which has been on the rise in recent years.
  • Early experimentation with what might be considered more advanced and higher risk activity (without the context of preparation and appropriate risk management) like anal sex or BDSM activities leading to physical injury or trauma due to mishaps, mismanagement.

We’re coy, prurient, and evasive when we need to be upfront, scientific, biologically accurate and most importantly for our children – unashamed. Unfortunately, pet names for the anatomy do not help kids become the bosses of their bodies. It doesn’t help with development of personal hygiene skills. Or the ability to get medical help when in discomfort. Especially for girls – whose equipment ‘under the hood’ or vulva – is largely unseen.

Furthermore, too little information, too much misinformation, too late, doesn’t keep our children safe. A wall of silence around gender makes trans teens even more vulnerable by denying them space to be seen and heard and making them more vulnerable to misinformation and unsafe guidance (eg about breast binding).

But right now the problems is that the world our children are growing up in is profoundly different from our own childhoods and teenage years. The model we had – passed down from our parents – is not suitable for curious children whose access to inappropriate information is only a click or two away.

I am not saying that just because there is earlier access to porn, we should be driven to too much, too soon. But the fact is, children are only human. They are curious. And they are sexual beings. We all have parts of our bodies which are pleasurable to touch. In utero baby observations show unborn children touch their genital areas for pleasure. We don’t like to think about it – largely because our children’s sexuality gives us as much of the ick as our parent sexuality does to our adolescents – but opening our eyes to the truth, the facts of life are there in front of us. On the changing mat, babies and toddlers -who explore the world by touch- are quick to discover erogenous zones.

One of our earliest tasks is to acknowledge this, and set appropriate limits without imposing shame or guilt: ‘That feels nice doesn’t it? OK. Now, we do that only in private, and with clean hands.’

Maybe one reason that there is so much stigma and drama in this debate, is because fundamentally many of us feel we don’t have the language or the tools to approach these topics with our children and we worry so much about getting it wrong.

I sometimes get the opportunity to talk about this with parents of children at particularly enlightened schools who want to develop a sense of partnership. There’s always fear about what will come up. Will there be a hijack, will controversy prevail. But every time, I have been inundated afterwards with stories by parents about how de-escalating things and simplifying the task to hundreds of bite-sized, little and often conversations.

How to begin…

Here’s an example:

Child: Mum / Dad, what is sex…?

Mum / Dad: Great question (affirming their question, and clearing your throat if you are freaking out a little!) Sex is when a man puts his penis into the woman’s vagina. They both agree to do this. Sex is for grown-ups. (The facts, objectively, clearly, cleanly. Followed immediately by a value – consent. And a boundary – it’s not for kids). Does that answer your question? (Check-in) What prompted you to ask? (Again a mirror check before changing lanes and getting back to loading the dishwasher)

Expansion pack:

Parent: You’ll hear the word sex and you might read or hear someone saying or singing that something is sexy…that’s going to happen. You might hear kids talk about it on the playground. What you need to know is that sex and sexy is not something for kids. If you have any questions about this sort of thing or any worries you can always ask me / Mum. This expansion piece goes into the safeguarding arena…doubling in on boundaries – what’s appropriate – and setting yourself up as their primary resource and recovery resource if they encounter anything worrying.

REMEMBER – kids will ask us – and we should welcome them coming to us and rewarding them relationally for doing so is VITAL.

Taking those cues from early on, and being on the front foot makes it far, far easier. Using teachable moments to drip feed information is a great way to go. Talking about parts of the body is much easier at bath time than at the dinner table. Or over a hastily acquired Amazon purchase thrust at them on the sofa…

When they are little, it’s just facts and information. They will not freak out about it in the same way as if you leave it later. As adults we come to it with a whole back catalogue of other ideas and influences and that can feel overwhelming. Kids will find the proper names funny. Penis, scrotum, anus, vagina, urethra…but they will have a giggle, play with the sound, and crack on with their lives.

Equally a young child may ask about gender. And despite all the noise and the fuss, the younger, the easier…When a child is starting out at school they are encountering the world at pace, and noticing stuff. They aren’t coming to this in a judgmental way, they are just curious – they are working out what’s what anyway. They don’t need the detail and the nuance…all the baggage that’s cluttering us. They just need a straightforward answer to something they see that they don’t understand.

Maybe they see a family friend or babysitter who has changed their look…

Here’s a link to Amy Lang’s resources for parents on this. She is a US author of Sex Talks with Tweens and Birds and Bees and Your Kids. Her website is birdandbees.com and she has numerous free tips there. Here’s what she says about talking to a 5 year old about Gender:

https://birdsandbeesandkids.com/how-to-explain-gender-identity-to-a-five-year-old/

At the same time we can identify the risks in terms of sexualisation and exploitation, in the world we live in, that our parents grow in, there’s lots of hope. By taking informed action and a proactive approach, we can mitigate the risks to our children of harmful influences online and from the hyper-sexualised, hyper-commercialised world around us.

The platform we build from preschool onwards with the naming of the parts, the development of personal hygiene skills, and the shame-free limit setting of touching for pleasure is vital for becoming their trusted resource when they are 9+ and access to smartphones becomes mainstream… bearing in mind the data point of 9/10 years old being the average age kids encounter pornography.

https://assets.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wpuploads/2017/06/MDX-NSPCC-OCC-Online-Pornography-CYP-Version-16.5.17.pdf

We need a strong baseline in order to be able to have the more difficult and detailed, relationally nuanced conversations that are needed when our kids hit adolescence. This is where the practice between parent and child, the trustworthy relationship, the go-to resource of the brave parent pays off with real world readiness, real world relevance for the lives of teens today. We need to resource and empower ourselves as parents to be able to do this better, and we need to stop making this too difficult and dangerous for school professionals to provide quality information and guidance and resources for children and teens with questions or struggles.

Schools and parents need to work in partnership to keep our children safe as they grow. Parents need to start on a basis of seeking to understand the context as well as the content of what goes in this arena in school life aside from the sensationalism.

Of course when kids and teens come home from school having encountered this, they may well have a partial and sensationalist take on what went on and tell you about it in an exaggerated way as part of them processing something they found a bit tricky. And that’s OK. Listen and ask, ask and listen. Sift what’s coming up and stay calm. If you have concerns and need to find out more, do so from a position of enquiry rather than in an outraged, adversarial sense.

Schools can signpost ways that parents can resource themselves up to understand what’s going to be covered when, and how they might want to get on the front foot of the topic before their child encounters it publicly. Involving and inviting parents to accessible events that improve that dialogue and mutual understanding is helpful in developing a balanced alliance.

What is really important is that home-led sex education is match-fit for the world our kids are growing in. Creating the culture before the crisis by talking early and talking often is the way forward -as the December 2021 Children’s Commissioner report highlighted.

This is a rationale, a call to action, a starting point…I hope this helps.

With gratitude,

Emma.

Other ways I can help:

  • Parent talks or webinars hosted by schools or PTAs.
  • 1:1 consultations with parents who want to get going with positive approaches to talking about sex and sexuality.
  • Small group sessions online with up to 10 parents who are interested in how to go about certain topics. These can be organised to be very bespoke to the group who may have children of a similar age, or who are a friendship group who want to think about a topic of interest. Scope for lots of Q and A and for parents to share costs.

More to explore