Does touching one’s body parts mean children ought to be prepared for their sexuality? What does that even mean?
After denying childhood sexual feelings for nearly a century, conservatives are starting to acknowledge them. And that’s good news for anyone who cares about the sex education of our young.
Sex education began in the early 1900s, when outbreaks of venereal disease in urban centers spawned brief schoolhouse lessons on the need for chastity. But to outraged foes of the new subject, especially Catholics, any mention of sex in school would make students too interested in it.
In a widely read 1916 essay, Catholic critic Agnes Repplier questioned whether children had a “natural curiosity” about sex; instead, she said, sex education provided a “strong artificial stimulus.” She also worried that the subject would be taught by teachers “unduly engrossed with sexual problems,” who would in turn transmit their obsession to unwary students.
Fourteen years later, a Washington, D.C., mother charged that the city’s new sex education initiative in elementary schools would have a similarly ill effect. Students “are to have thrust upon their innocent, childish consciousness subjects much too deep and far reaching for their understanding,” the mother wrote.
By the 1960s, when Mary Calderone championed a new sexual frankness in the schools, conservatives stepped up their resistance as well. “The program is taking their childhood away,” a Minnesota parent complained, condemning sex education.
The argument seems to be that since kids have sexual feelings, we ought to have sex education earlier. What is left unsaid: what does it mean to have sexual feelings? Are we basing this entirely on the reality that children touch their genitals?
“A paradigm change … must occur in our vision of children as non-sexual, to sexual, to normal,” Calderone told a colleague, after her 1985 speech about fetal erections. Back then, America wasn’t ready to hear her; today, it is. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply hasn’t been listening.
Meanwhile, the International Planned Parenthood Federation takes the position that, children being the sexual creatures they are, there is no age which is “too young” for a child to be sexually active without parental notification or consent:
IPPF contends that age should not be used as an indicator of a young person’s capacity to make autonomous decisions. Despite this, it is often utilised as a determinant of capacity in law, and the personal estimation of health professionals, which can lead to the perpetuation of judgmental attitudes. Laws that require parental consent or notification to access SRH services are a manifestation of the presumption of incapacity. These laws persist, despite the PoA’s call for States to remove legal barriers that prevent young people from accessing SRH information and services (PoA Para 7.45). However, legal and policy provisions that mandate parental involvement in the realm of SRH often deter young people from accessing services for fear that their parents may discover they are sexually active. This is contrary to young people’s rights to privacy, confidentiality and the highest attainable standard of health.