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Physiological, psychological, and social factors all contribute to the forming of one's sexuality. Every day of life, a child learns something about what it means to be sexual, how he or she is defined by others, how one should act, what is expected of one. In every society, children from birth are placed within a division of society according to their physiological sexual features. Hence, it is biologically determined sex, not socially defined sex, that determines one's basic sexual status; for all gender systems take their justification from physiological distinctions between female and male, and from birth on a person learns the social rules that influence and determine sexual behavior for that gender within the society. Every person a child meets throughout the day, every agency, the media, as well as institutions that have a direct stake in doing so-family, school, state, church--contribute to shaping the child's sexuality. What children have traditionally learned in U.S. society is that they are not to engage in any activity that is sexual in nature. In a classic study conducted thirty-five years ago, Sears, Maccoby, and Levine (1957) showed how mothers, the primary teachers of infants and children, follow out a path of avoidance of anything that might be thought to permit, encourage, or interpret any child activity as sexual in nature.
In the past, parents, school, and church have done little to provide adequate, age-appropriate sex instruction for children. The following case indicates a child's reaction to the teachings of the church.
An overriding rationale for limiting children's access to knowledge about sexuality and the sexual practices of adults was to protect them. American society was not unlike most of the restrictive societies that maintain a public conspiracy against the acquisition of sexual knowledge by children (Ford and Beach 195 1). The cult of innocence through keeping children ignorant developed and strengthened in Western society toward the end of the last century to the point that the difficulty of talking about sexuality to children appeared to be almost natural (Elias 1978/1939). The restriction may have developed in part as a defense against advances in awareness of the sexual life of children represented in theories of Sigmund Freud and others.
The cult of innocence was easiest to maintain in middle-class communities where the sexual proclivities of children were regarded as premature if not aberrant. In economically poor and overcrowded inner-city communities, childhood sexual innocence was almost impossible to maintain. As Rainwater wrote in Behind Ghetto Walls (1970), adults in a slum area had come to regard the sexual interests and activities of children as natural, if lamentable. Older children learned fully developed conceptions of sexual behavior and of its desirability through talk and observation.
Many things motivate children, even at a very early age, to gather more information than their parents think they should have about many things concerning sexuality. Examining their own body parts; noticing the differences in body parts of girls and boys; experiencing feelings in the pelvic area that they do not understand; the presence of a new puppy in the home; seeing the birth of a litter of kittens; noticing the changes in a pregnant relative or neighbor; overhearing a chance bit of conversation about some aspect of sexual life; as well as any discrepant event provokes prolonged attention leading to understanding or anxiety, can be the motivator. Children up to around eight years of age demonstrate an ease with sexual topics. They appear to respect others of their age, both boys and girls; are able to talk about sex with interest and mutual consideration; and comfortably discuss words like uterus, breasts, and penis (Brick 1985) though they do not use those Latin-derived terms unless these have been taught by adults.
Repressing sexual knowledge and experience has effects other than keeping children naive and innocent. Denying information leaves the control of children's sexuality in the hands of adults. Without names for the sexual organs and terms for sexual activity, children's fantasy tends to overrun their sexual life; they are also likely to identify the sexual organs with excretory functions.
The following two cases relate to the practice of restricting information given to children or giving words without factual information. In the first case, a ten-year-old girl related that she had been reprimanded by a parochial day school teacher for using the word sex and that she had been "morbidly afraid of falling in love" because her parents had told her that a person got pregnant only when married and in love. She concluded that at the end of her home and church "sex education" she, at age thirteen, "was a cold unemotional adolescent who valued virginity above all else. However, my inability to relate to boys was a constant source of frustration." In the second case,
According to the therapist Helen Kaplan (1974), restrictive upbringing is an extremely important and highly prevalent source of conflict that leads to sexual alienation and dysfunction. Children who are not instructed must rely on each other's experiences and bits of information they find.
Naming something is an essential process in relating to the object named; the name expresses the person's attitude and it determines that attitude. Once named, the object can be singled out, classified, and made available. The unnamed object is always the unknown whose relation to the person cannot be clarified (Wrage 1969). Or, as one student puts it,
From day one in the life of their child, parents are giving messages about sexuality whether or not they are conscious of it and whether or not they mean to. If they do not provide information, they still create attitudes and orientations through which information received from other sources will be filtered. Many parents attempt to hide any aspects of adult sexuality.
Children often test their parents regarding sexual knowledge and sometimes find their parents wanting.
I believe that you just can't take your parents for truth in these matters. Perchance this is what starts a basic gulf or mistrust between many parents and children: that one of the first important issues in your life you take up with parents, they tell you things which do not apply; as a matter of fact, the near opposite of what applies. How apt is a person to seek repeated counsel from those he has seen to be wrong in the past.
Sexuality educators assert that for the child to develop a healthy sexuality as he or she matures, the encouragement and/or explicit training of sexually appropriate behaviors is required. Children need to be made aware of their own sexuality; this requires that their mentors accept sexuality from a developmental perspective and encourage developmentally appropriate behavior. Children remember being warned or scolded about sex.
In homes where children cannot get satisfactory answers from the parents, an older sibling sometimes comes to the rescue.
The greater acceptance of children as sexual beings in the last two decades and the increase in books and articles for parents of young children would be expected to improve the at-home sexual education of children (Martinson 1992). Since mothers spend the most time with young children, most reactions to at-home instruction is to something involving mother. The following cases give the flavor of some of the positive reactions of children to what they experienced about sexuality in their homes.
The next case comes close to being an ideal daughter-mother relationship as far as communication is concerned.
Sex instruction on those less frequent occasions when it is given b fathers is also appreciated if it is done well.
Parents often receive mixed messages from child guidance authorities regarding how to deal with nudity in the family (Martinson 1992). In the following two eases, children show their appreciation of nudity as part of their at-home sexuality education.
Children appreciate love, respect, and values they learn as part of sexuality education at home.
Historically, children in America got the bulk of their sexual information, such as it was, through associating with their peers. The following are reactions to sex "instruction" from peers.
Many parents assert that they are ill equipped to give sex information to their children because they are confused as to what they ought to teach diem, at what age they ought to teach them, and how they ought to teach. Help for parents is becoming more available. In the last decade, a number of books of guidance for parents have become available, books written by sexuality educators and therapists. Most parents want their children to have sexuality education in school. In the United States, twenty-two states require it and twenty-four states encourage it, yet only an estimated 10 percent of children receive comprehensive school-based sexuality education (Scales 1986). Fewer than one in six of the state curricula provide young people with a comprehensive base of information and education on sexuality before they leave the twelfth grade. Most sexuality education programs in the schools do not begin until the junior or senior high school years, and few of them address sexual issues comprehensively.
Parents in a high socioeconomic suburb of an eastern U.S. city were asked to rank their preferences regarding the inclusion of a number of topics in a sexuality education program for sixth graders (Silverstein and Buck 1986). A number of sensitive topics were included. The approval rates they received are as follows: child molestation, 81 percent; sexual attraction, 80 percent; intercourse, 79 percent; venereal disease, 74 percent; rape, 73 percent; birth control, 71 percent; exhibitionism, 71 percent; masturbation, 66 percent; abortion, 63 percent; homosexuality, 63 percent; and pornography, 56 percent. Thirty-two percent approved of including the advantages of premarital sex, but a larger percentage (69%) supported the inclusion of the disadvantages of premarital sex. Comments of parents focused on the need to include responsibility for behavior and moral issues regarding sexual intimacy. Several noted that it was not the nature of the topic that they disagreed with but the age at which it is appropriate to discuss sexuality.
Croft and Asmussen (1992) attempted to identify the ideal time for the introduction of various sexual topics, using a community survey in a predominantly middle-class, Midwestern metropolitan area. Of thirty-four topics mentioned, mothers believed that all of them needed to be initiated prior to high school graduation, and mothers, along with the family life educators, agreed that twenty-one of the thirty-four topics ideally should be introduced in the elementary school grades rather than in higher grades. These included reducing fear and guilt regarding sexuality; how sexuality development affects personal growth and development; information on male and female genitalia; biology of human growth, reproduction, and birth; development of interpersonal skills with the opposite sex; encouraging students to talk with parents regarding sexuality; correct physiologic myths; biological changes at puberty and lifespan development; pubertal experiences similar for peers; and AIDS education. Mothers and educators also thought the following subjects, which were never introduced in the school, should be introduced in middle school: information about abnormal sexual development; abortion information and abortion's effects on the body; integrating family values into discussions; and contraceptive information. Both also agreed that the topics of venereal disease, sexually transmitted disease, and abstinence, which were already introduced at the middle school level should continue to be offered there.
The aforementioned studies show clearly that there is parental support for comprehensive sexuality education beginning as early as the elementary grades."
A task force of leading health, education, and sexuality professionals
developed Guidelines for Sexuality Education: Kindergarten-12th Grade (199 1).
The task force spelled out what it regarded as appropriate developmental
messages that should first be discussed at each of four stages of
development-ages five through eight, nine through twelve, twelve through
fifteen, and fifteen through eighteen.
Sexuality education outside the home for young children is at present only in the early stages of development and implementation. A model for helping early childhood educators develop policies and programs for children's sexual learning has been field-tested in a number of childhood programs by The Center for Family Life Education (Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey).
To develop and initiate a kindergarten through high school sexuality education program, it is important that both parents and teachers be informed about and have an opportunity to discuss sexuality as a developing human capacity that begins at birth and continues. This must be done as a beginning phase of a developmental stage in a community or school program of sexuality education, during which the appropriate goals are identified for each grade level (Croft and Asmussen 1992). Parents, teachers, and others in the community would all need a voice in deciding at what age topics in Guidelines for Sexuality Education: Kindergarten-12th Grade should be introduced in the curriculum and how they should be taught.
In the United States, all states at present either require or recommend HIV and AIDS education, and all states stress sexual abstinence; but only eleven states provide balanced information on safer sex and abstinence. Abstinence has been the primary emphasis for as long as sex education has been offered in the schools. There is concern today that emphasizing mainly abstinence and the negative outcomes of sexual activity-pregnancy, HIV /AIDS, and STDs-gives children an unbalanced perspective on human sexuality; we must also fear the fear of sex. More parents and educators are speaking out in favor of a balanced perspective within the context of an accepting and positive view of human sexuality. To date only three states present HIV/AIDS information within a context that emphasizes both the positive and negative consequences of sexual activity (Britten, de Mauro, and Gambrell 1992), and only five states acknowledge sexuality as a natural part of life and include information on the range of sexual activities and behaviors. Seven of the eleven states providing balanced information on safer sex and abstinence discuss low-risk, non-coital sexual activity.
Sexual intercourse is now normative behavior for American high school students since 54 percent of ninth through twelfth graders and 72 percent of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse (Haffner 1992). We are slowly learning what Sweden, with a much longer history of sex education in the schools, learned some years ago-namely, that telling youth that they should postpone their sexual debut was not enough. Something had to be done to educate about sexual responsibility for those who were or soon could be expected to be sexually active. Since the majority of students in the United States experience sexual intercourse prior to graduating from high school despite the traditional stress on abstinence in sexuality education programs, it is important to include condom information as a preventative measure. This information is given in thirty-seven states. But only five states provide practical information on condom use, such as how to obtain, use, and dispose of condoms (Britten, de Mauro, and Gambrell 1992). Condom instruction appears to be having some effect in the United States, since there has been a positive change in condom utilization among young people (Haffner 1992).
Carefully planned and developed curricula require teachers who are convinced of the importance of sexuality education and who feel competent regarding their own preparation. They also need to feel confident that they have the support of school officials and the community. Before attempting sexuality education, all teachers need opportunities to examine their own learning, experience, and values regarding sexuality, and they need practice using "teachable moments." In the following two cases, the teachers were not prepared to deal sympathetically and sensitively with drawings made by young children.
Sexual educators have been under attack in communities across the United States for providing sex education to children. In 1990, two states rescinded their mandates for sexual education in response to opposition groups. A large part of the current controversy centers around the changing focus of school sexuality education that has taken place within the last decade (Scales 1986).
Prior to that time, sexuality education had focused largely on helping people avoid the negative consequences of sexual decisions that could lead to contracting sexual diseases, unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, school dropouts, early marriage, and a life of poverty. Currently sexuality education deals with these issues but also views sexuality in a positive light.
It is argued that a major purpose of public schooling must be to teach children how to reason, to question, and to accept responsibility-how to think, more than what to think; that public education has an obligation to present a wide variety of ideas that reflect the perspectives of the entire community and address the needs of all pupils (Sedway 1992).
On the other hand, there are groups, often referred to as far right or religious right groups, who promote a narrower curriculum that eliminates the discussion of controversial topics (such as birth control, HIV/AIDS, abortion) and focuses exclusively on a program of sexual education that fosters sexual abstinence as the only behavior that can or should be supported both for practical and moral reasons.
Though this approach may have the singular support of certain conservative groups, sex-for-procreation that devalues other forms of sexual behavior (such as engaging in alternatives to sexual intercourse for pleasure) also have support in U.S. society.
Barriers to comprehensive sexuality education for children and youth grow out of the conflict between those who believe that the next generation should be fully and completely educated on human sexuality and those who do not. A history of repression of open, rational discussion of sexuality has left U.S. society more uncomfortable with the subject of human sexuality than are some other societies. As a result, we are inclined to define human sexuality only in terms of sexual intercourse and school sex education as intervention to prevent the negative consequences of sexual intercourse from occurring too early in life.
In other words, we have not distinguished between developing sexuality and reproductive sexuality in our school-based sexuality education. Age-appropriate sexuality education deals with developing sexuality; it has less to do with reproduction. School administrators are reluctant to sponsor sexuality education programs partly out of a desire to avoid religious and political conflict, though studies show that only I to 3 percent of parents have refused to have their children participate in such education (Scales 1980).
Professionals are also confused about the rapid change in sexual values and lifestyles and how they should proceed in the face of the changes. Due to our failure to perceive the need for sexuality programs and services, we do not have a pool of teachers prepared and comfortable to teach the material. In those states where teachers are mandated by law to teach sexuality education, the teachers usually lack the necessary training and often teach it without confidence or enthusiasm (Krueger 1991).
Focusing on sexuality education, rather than sex education, may appear to the reader to be only a semantic change. But sexuality education broadens the scope, emphasizing that sex focuses attention on behaviors and activities that comprehensive education hopes to postpone. All children in school are developing sexually. They need to have their attention focused on that development. On the other hand, introducing contraceptive instruction comes none too soon since an estimated 30 percent of sexually active adolescents become pregnant during their teen years. Approximately 600,000 of the pregnancies in the United States annually are unintended pregnancies of single female teenagers.
Sexually transmitted diseases gonorrhea, chlarnydia, herpes, and cervical cancer-are occurring at high levels in the United States, and adolescents are both the recipients and transmitters of these infections (Fisher 1990). American adolescents, even preadolescents, have been allowed substantial freedom of action but without enough information and guidance in dealing with the powerful sexual feelings that commonly arise around, or even before, puberty.
Teenage pregnancies are far more common in countries that restrict or delay sexuality education (such as the United States, New Zealand, and Thailand) than in countries with previously high rates-Sweden and Denmark, for example-that have introduced early and comprehensive sexuality education in schools and have seen ten years of dramatic decreases in the rates of teen pregnancies. Goldman and Goldman's (1982) interview study with children in the English-speaking countries of Australia, Great Britain, and North America, as well as Sweden, found that Swedish children were consistently better informed for their ages, were less inhibited about discussing sexuality, and were better prepared for their adolescent and adult years than were their peers in the English-speaking countries. The responses of the Swedish children provided strong evidence that children have the intellectual capacity to deal responsibly with sexual information if they have been informed rather than uninformed or misinformed. Because the sexuality of children and youth is a developing sexuality, their sexuality education must also be ongoing. One or two "facts of life" talks will not suffice.
All states provide parents with the option to excuse their children from this instruction-this despite fear of the spread of HIV/AIDS. Few parents exercise this choice.
It is important not only that parents be informed about the sexual topics being covered during the school year-they need also to be encouraged to facilitate family discussion about sexuality in the home, for only in the home can such education be integrated into the family's value system. Parents may welcome being directed to educational materials that will increase their knowledge of children's developing sexuality as a way of improving their "askability" in discussions with their children.
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