What I learned from attending a workshop on “Raising Sexually Healthy Children”:
A few weeks ago I attended an incredible workshop that was hosted by the The City of Toronto’s Public Health department at my university. Who knew that The City of Toronto provides regular (and free) workshops on sexual health and wellness? I sure didn’t, that is until I received an email from my school’s Centre for Sexual Violence Response, Support & Education department. This particular workshop was on the topic of “raising sexually healthy children” and talking to kids about their bodies. I figured that this was right up my alley as I teach young women about their body autonomy through my workshops Expressions of Girlhood, but I was shocked at the amount of new information that I learned.
One of my biggest takeaways from the workshop was how it is absolutely essential that we begin having real (open, honest, shameless) conversations with kids about sexuality at a young age; and that age is probably a lot younger than you think.
Consider this, at what age do children start comparing body parts?
This usually occurs around age 2 or 3.
Now consider what age children are now getting cellphones?
For many it is as young as 8 years old, and sometimes even earlier.
Whether they hear the word from their older sibling or a big kid on the playground, the moment a child is old enough to type the three simple letters s-e-x their entire world can change in a split second. A huge portion of the information that children are exposed to on the internet is too overwhelming, even for us, so just take a moment to pause and think about what the media and technology is teaching our children. It is impossible to eliminate this access to information, so we must combat the negative images through education and empowerment.
It is easy for us to assume that our kids are “better than that” or falsely believe that their innocence will be preserved through our technology restrictions. Yet, children are exposed to information about sexuality from a multitude of sources such as their homes, schools, the media, and especially older kids at school… The list of exposure is endless. When we change the channel on TV during a steamy scene rather than confront the elephant in the room it signals to our kids that they cannot talk about these extremely sensitive topics.
Furthermore, if children do work up the courage to ask us about sexuality and are met with silence or lies, this teaches them that they can not trust us. It has been studied and proven that restricting access and muting certain topics of conversation only results in children seeking information from unreliable sources such as their peers or through personal experimentation, and thus places them in dangerous situations that they are not psychically or psychologically prepared for.
Now you might be thinking that children are supposed to learn about sexual health in school, right?
Well, sort of.
Unfortunately, the sexual education that children receive at school is drastically insufficient and is primarily fear and shame based. Under the authority of our newest Premier, the Ontario sexual education curriculum has taken a huge fall backwards. The curriculum has been reverted back to the 1998 model which erases any conversation about identity or consent, two incredibly vital issues that are shaping our current Canadian society. In 2015 these topics were included in the curricula, however they were deemed irrelevant under the new government’s standards. In sexual education classes children are only learning about sexually transmitted infections and physical anatomy over the span of only a couple lessons, a week at most. The curriculum is structured from a lens of pregnancy prevention by instilling fear and shame as opposed to empowerment through knowledge. This curriculum is available online, so check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.
We begin teaching children about consent when they are about 2 years old, and we often don’t recognize it as such. When we teach toddlers about relationship boundaries and the notion of good touch / bad touch, often we unconsciously set them up for failure (even with our best intentions). We tend to separate friendships and relationships, but dividing the two is detrimental. When we talk about healthy relationship boundaries overall, children learn skills that carry over into their future romantic relationships. When it comes to good touch / bad touch, this terminology indicates that there are public and private parts of the body. In reality, all parts of the body are private (the sexual educator gave the example of unwanted touch on the back or on the stomach, or a predator walking too close).
So where do we go from here?
Two of the key reasons that we are so hesitant to talk to children about sexual health and wellness is because of our own discomfort and because we feel that we are ruining their innocence. But is our own discomfort and unrealistic expectation of innocence preservation really worth putting them in harms way? It is unavoidable, and we need to be honest with ourselves and our children that people have sex for PLEASURE, not just to make babies. It is important to remember that sexuality is not just the physical act of intercourse either. Sexuality is an element of our personality based on environmental influences- it encompasses our physical expression, reproduction, values, gender identity, and much more. Every single one of us has a different system of values and levels of comfort when it comes to sexuality.
When it comes to confronting questions, we don’t need to have all of the answers. In fact, we don’t even need to answer the questions right away.
If your child asks you a question about sexuality, affirm that it is a good question and tell them that you will get back to them with an answer. It would be wise to repeat the question back to the child to see what they know already, as to not give too much information. Give it some time to settle, and ensure that you follow up with factual information that is developmentally age appropriate and honestly encompasses your family values (if you are the parent).
Kids need to be able to talk to people they trust who are informed, not their peers or Google.
A great example of this is when a child asks you why people kiss. A potential response that empowers the child with factual, age appropriate knowledge is something along the lines of this:
"Kissing is an invited touch that makes us feel good, but it is something you should wait to do until you are older / completely comfortable with the other person because it sends the other person a message that you really like them. Sometimes people kiss just to look cool in the eyes of their peers or to claim that they’ve done it, but this is immature."
The most important point that I want to remind you of will be prefaced with a trigger warning*. 90% of the times that sexual abuse occurs, it is within an individual’s circle of trust. Children need to learn the proper names for all of their body parts so they can clearly identify and understand them. The educator shared a story of a young girl who called her vulva a “cookie”, and how it took months of her telling her teacher that someone was touching her cookie before it clicked to the teacher. There is a substantial link between fake names for body parts and sexual abuse, and this is undeniable. Children need clarity of terms, and perhaps consider why it is that statistically the parents of boys are willing to name all of their child’s body parts yet this is not the same for parents of girls.
Lastly, with the holidays right around the corner it is important to remind our children that they do not need to greet family members with hugs and kisses. By enforcing these expectations we sexually disempower our children and teach them that they have no consent, especially young girls. If an adult has a problem with their 5 year old niece not wanting to greet everyone with a hug and a kiss, that is their own problem. Give your child different options on how to greet and show affection. Some examples could be high fives, presenting a performance, giving cards, hand shakes, or simply teaching children to say sincere and respectful “hellos”.
All of this might seem daunting, and that's because sexuality is still a very uncomfortable topic in our society. But we have the power to change that.
It starts with empowerment.
I send you all love and light.