Is it reasonable to take middle-schoolers to a sex toy shop? Is it harmful to start teaching your toddler the word “vulva” before she can remember her sister’s name? Is it good to expect teenagers to be celibate and teach them abstinence exclusively? Will it scare elementary-age children to know about fluid gender identity? Is it OK that, as the Guttmacher Institute noted, only 22 states in America require sex ed, and only 13 of them require the information provided to be “medically accurate”?
The state of sexual education in the U.S. is divided and embattled. Parents, school districts, and the federal government almost never perfectly agree. This year, a parent filed a police report after a small school promoting “holistic education” took their kids on a field trip to the Smitten Kitten, a local sex toy shop. Ontario released a new 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum that has had parents up in arms over the inclusion of topics like sexting, consent, and gender identity. And exaggerated reports of a chlamydia outbreak at a Texas high school were fueled immediately by the fact that the school taught abstinence-only sex ed.
I’m the mother of a 17-month-old, and I want my daughter to be prepared for all the shit life tends to throw at young women. My own mother took more of a backseat approach to my sexuality education. I don’t blame her: that was the way of things. But as a result, I grew up not giving that stuff much thought, assuming I wouldn’t have sex until marriage. And so, at the age of 19, when I was coerced into losing my virginity to a guy my mom still refers to as “that crumb,” I felt blindsided. I struggled with pain during intercourse for years afterward. I was terrified of intimacy. I became a sex writer as a means of fixing myself, and I’m still a sex writer today. I’m essentially a walking argument for why parents should take responsibility for their children’s sexuality education from a young age.
Of course, not all parents agree. One mother, during the Smitten Kitten incident, explained the mindset neatly: “I wanted our children to grow up and remain children as long as possible.” It’s an understandable sentiment, but a misguided one. And the taboo surrounding the sexuality education of pre-adolescents is even more deeply entrenched.
So what can parents do to take a more active role in their children’s education? And when does that education rightfully start?
Alyssa Royse, mother to a 17-year-old daughter and stepmother to two other girls—9 and 6—has always been outspoken about her belief that sexuality education should begin at birth. She herself started early on with her own daughter, “with just being naked a lot.”
“I made certain that she knew all the proper names of her body parts,” says Royse of her daughter Celia, “and that she was in charge of caring for them as soon as she was able. Little things like, in the bath, asking if she wanted to clean herself or wanted me to.” In addition, Royse and her husband never made Celia hug or kiss anyone she didn’t want to.
“As she got older,” says Royse, “she’d ask questions about bodies and we’d just answer her.” And once Celia was in sixth grade, Royse and her daughter began watching Gossip Girl together. Royse found that using television enabled them to have conversations about sex, and to set a tone in which Celia knew she didn’t have to be ashamed to bring her questions to her mother. What was most important, says Royse, is that her daughter was, in time, able to understand her own body and verbalize her emotions. She saw media as something that would encourage that expression rather than endanger it.
Lea Grover, the mother of three girls—twin 6-year-olds and a 3-year-old—has also worked hard to be open with her children about sexuality. “From the very beginning,” says Grover, “I tried to used anatomically correct terms for their parts. ‘Vulva,’ in particular. I think using the proper names for things is the beginning of sex ed.” And the education only continued from there. When her twins were almost 2, Grover became pregnant again, and they talked about how a baby gets into a uterus, how long it takes to grow and, eventually, how a mom’s egg and a dad’s sperm come together to make a baby.
“But I think the sex ed really started when they were 2 or 3 and started exploring their genitals,” says Grover. “We started having lots of conversations about when and where it’s appropriate to touch your vulva, and who it’s appropriate to touch your vulva around, and who’s allowed to touch your vulva. I’ve taken them several times to anti-rape rallies and we talk about how if you give somebody a high five that’s nice, but if they don’t want to you’re hitting them, and that’s not okay, and sex is the same way.”
“The twins are six now,” Grover continues, “and we’ve started talking quite a bit about puberty. They’re really curious about when they’ll grow breasts, and when they’ll start their periods, so we talk about what that will be like and how it will happen.”
Unsurprisingly, both Royse and Grover have faced negative reactions and open judgment. “I think that people think I’m running an orgy over here all the time because I talk so publicly about sex issues,” says Royse. “But my daughter and her friends feel safe talking to me, and I think that’s hugely important.”
“I’ve posted pictures online of my children at the SlutWalk,” says Grover, “holding signs that say things like, ‘Wear What You Want To Wear’ and ‘I’m In Charge Of My Body,’ and lots of people online are quick to shout at me that they’re going to grow up to be prostitutes or strippers. Which is bonkers.”
But—bonkers as it is—it’s also a common argument. There are always those who will decry early childhood sexuality education, or even adolescent sexuality education because they feel that teaching kids about sex and/or pleasure will lead to rampant sexual activity. This despite the fact that there is plenty of research to show that the opposite is true.
Alison Oliver, another sexuality educator, points to research showing that children who develop a certain level of comfort in talking about their genitals are more likely to disclose if anything inappropriate ever takes place. “Parents want to protect their children from sex-related information as a means of keeping them safe. But more information—and a greater comfort level—around sex can actually make them safer,” she says.
“Acknowledging that sexual pleasure exists is entirely different than acting on that knowledge,” says Deborah Roffman, a teacher of human sexuality at the Park School in Baltimore and the author of Talk To Me First. “People—including young people—who are in the know make more cautious, deliberate, and thoughtful decisions.”
And this is the type of knowledge that has guided Royse’s and Grover’s parenting. Royse says, “Teaching them that sex is about pleasure for everyone involved gives them the tools to recognize that if they, or their partners, don’t feel good about it, then it shouldn’t be happening.”
Grover echoes this attitude, pointing out that—whether or not she teaches her daughters and sex and pleasure—they’ll still get the message from somewhere. “Kids get the message that sex is good and sex is important constantly, from every billboard, every television commercial, every movie, and pretty much every song on the radio,” she says. “They get the message from every middle school dress code that tells girls they’re a distraction instead of an educational priority. They get the message from every clothing retailer that keeps girls’ shorts four inches shorter than boys’ shorts.”
When asked how she approaches the topic of pleasure with her daughters, I can’t help but admire her ingenuity. “I tell my kids that sex feels good because it does,” says Grover, “but I also tell them that it’s a grownup feeling. The way Mommy and Daddy like coffee and Brussels sprouts. I tell them grownup bodies are different, and that grownups like different things than kids and they can see that in their everyday life. It’s obvious to them that we don’t particularly enjoy playing with their dolls, and that for some reason we do enjoy showering. I tell them that when their bodies begin to change into adult bodies, they’ll like different things and feel different ways, which is absolutely the truth.”
“Kids need no encouragement to have sex,” Grover insists. “What they do need is education.” When I think about my parents’ silence and the confusion between guilt and pleasure I felt when I was 17 and a boyfriend put his hands between my legs, I agree.
Both Royse and Grover feel that their efforts have had an obvious positive effect, and according to the experts, the two parents are on to something. Reverend Debra W. Haffner, the author of From Diapers To Dating: A Parent’s Guide To Raising Sexually Healthy Children—From Infancy To Middle School, wrote an entire book affirming that sexuality education begins at birth. It’s about much more than just sex, she explains. “It’s about how we respond to our children’s needs for touch, how we give them information about our expectations for their gender, how we teach them the names of the parts of the body. Understanding our children’s developmental needs about sexuality will help us set the foundation for a lifetime of sexually healthy and responsible attitudes and behaviors.”
Roffman points out that all learning occurs best “in an ever more sophisticated spiral, beginning with simple facts and concepts when children are young. Why would sexual learning be any different?” She believes postponing the teaching of age-appropriate information is ridiculous. “It’s not as if children are living in a vacuum,” says Roffman. “They’re exposed to misinformation and attitudes about sexuality all the time.”
If you remain unconvinced, there exists a large body of research in support of the at-home education of our children regarding their sexuality. In 2011, Sandy K. Wurtele and Maureen C. Kenny wrote a paper on sexuality development in children, and on its implications for appropriate sexuality education. This paper referenced a number of related research studies in its exploration of what children should be learning from their parents about sexuality at every stage of life.
The first few months out of the womb, babies immediately get to know their bodies. Within their first year of life, they may explore their genitals when getting their diaper changed, or during “tubby time” (that’s what we call it in my house, don’t laugh). During this self-exploration, they may realize that certain types of touch feel good and, so, may repeat it. Such touching may also develop into a self-soothing behavior.
As they enter into toddlerhood, most children can identify themselves and those around them as either male or female. This is a good time to start teaching them the correct names for their genitals, regardless of how tempting it may be to use the words “hoo-ha” and “booty.” This can help them develop a positive body image, and also, give them the information they need to avoid becoming victims of sexual abuse. According to one study, children who lack this sexual knowledge may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse as some sexual offenders avoid children who appear to have been educated about body safety and sexuality.
This is also a good time to educate children on the difference between public and private behaviors. As Grover wrote in a piece about sex-positive parenting, a common refrain in her household was, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.”
And if your child graduates from making elephant and bee sounds and actually asks where babies come from? Provide him or her with simple answers and easy-to-understand information. Much of the sexual behavior your child exhibits at this age stems from curiosity, and it’s important for parents to respond in a supportive manner.
Between the ages 4 and 6, many children develop a sense of modesty and begin demanding privacy. Some preschoolers even have self-described “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” with whom they hold hands, hug, and kiss. This is an ideal time to reiterate lessons on personal boundaries and body ownership.
Later on in elementary school, boys more frequently talk about girls’ bodies, teasing them about their breasts, making demeaning comments, and being generally horrible. Fledgling crushes develop and children begin seeking out information about sex from their friends, pop culture, and the big, bad Internet. Considering the probable inaccuracy of much of this information, it’s especially crucial for parents to take an active role at this time in teaching their children about healthy sexuality.
The sexual awakening only accelerates from here on out. During the period immediately preceding adolescence, hormones happen. Puberty happens. Masturbation is discovered. The allure of romantic relationships and sexual activity grows. One study actually found that over half of both men and women remember masturbating to orgasm by the age of 12 (making me the latest bloomer ever). And this behavior shouldn’t be discouraged! Women who said they started masturbating before puberty had more positive attitudes about sex, more positive sexual experiences, and better sexual self-esteem than women who did not. And going forward, as parents set a positive foundation for their children’s knowledge about sexuality, teaching them body ownership, they’re more likely to take responsibility for keeping themselves safe, for protecting their sexual and reproductive health, and for avoiding sexual behaviors that are harmful to themselves or others.
It’s a shame that many parents persist in viewing their children as innocent and asexual, lacking any sexual desires, thoughts, or erotic interests. This attitude only serves to make children more vulnerable. We shouldn’t be waiting for the physical education teacher with no formal training about sexuality to teach our children about intimacy and body ownership (or, as is more often the case, basic anatomy and all of the many possible negative repercussions of sexual intercourse). We should be preparing our children for everything that is to come.
I’m glad to be learning about this now because, even as a longtime sex writer, I feel unprepared for my child’s sexual education. When does changing in front of her become weird? I ask myself. What do I do if she tries to kiss one of the children at Mommy and Me Storytime? Where is the line between appropriate and inappropriate?
And so I wing it; like every parent does. I let her barge in on me, cackling madly, when I’m trying to pee in peace. I explain to her what’s happening and tell her she’ll get to do the same thing for herself when she’s a big girl. I don’t force her to kiss me or anyone else goodnight if she doesn’t want to. I narrate what I’m doing and use proper terminology when I change her diaper.
And maybe I’m overdoing it. Maybe it’s useless to do some of this when the only words she speaks are “mama,” “dada,” “bye-bye,” and “boo!”
But I’d rather choose openness and education versus secrecy, shame, and obfuscation. Because I want my daughter to grow up to be self-confident and comfortable—sexually and otherwise—no matter how fast or how slow she comes into her own.
Steph Auteri has written about sexuality for Playgirl, Time Out New York, Nerve, Brain, Child, and other publications. She also regularly collaborates with sexuality educators, researchers, and therapists. Find her on Twitter @stephauteri.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby