Teaching kids that sex is shameful can harm them for life
|Virginity is a diamond. Having more than one sexual partner makes our hearts dirty. It is our fault for making a man lust us. Our purity is prized above anything else. Homosexuality is a grave mortal sin... These are some memories revealed on Monday night’s Four Corners by alumni of two prestigious Sydney private schools, regarding what they were taught on sexuality when they were still children.
The former students interviewed voiced some extreme examples of shaming, purity and abstinence-only “education” (those quotation marks are doing some heavy lifting) that they say have taken place in this country, and it left me distressed. I have been researching, writing and speaking about sex-ed for more than a decade and this kind of messaging horrifies me because it wantonly destroys young people’s wellbeing. It is not just outdated or fringe, it is materially, demonstrably dangerous.
Teaching young people that sexual feelings and intimate encounters are inherently shameful is damaging. In an apparent attempt to protect their innocence, we are teaching them to feel disgust and even self-hatred. That is far more likely to destroy innocence.
Some data suggests that people who have grown up in purity cultures have an increased likelihood of experiencing pain, anxiety or other kinds of sexual dysfunction when they become sexually active – even if that activity only takes place with one person, and after marriage. Anecdotally, sex therapists and educators I speak to report that this is common.
On telling kids that homosexuality is a sin: there is significant research that shows LGBTQIA+ communities experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and comparatively higher levels of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than in general populations – which has been associated with stigma, prejudice and discrimination.
The Four Corners report referred to one school dissuading students from getting the HPV vaccine – you know, the one that helps prevent the potentially fatal cervical cancer – in the name of discouraging promiscuity. It is not hyperbole to say that when we shame sexuality, we pay for it in futures and lives.
Even if you believe the sole purpose of sex-ed should be to protect against risk – don’t get pregnant, don’t get a STI, don’t get raped – this kind of approach will not even achieve that. The episode included claims that a teacher was dismissive about “consent training” and apparently suggested abstinence-only to be the only way. (I shudder to think what he would say of comprehensive relationships and sexuality education: “RSE”.) That position is simply not supported by the evidence. It has been shown that abstinence-only education does not delay first sexual activity, does not reduce rates of teen births and of pregnancy terminations, compared to comprehensive and positive RSE. Negative sex-ed messaging is also worse for safe-sex practices.
To be clear, I am not arguing that sex-ed cannot include abstinence as one of the choices available to us all; the danger is in promoting it as the only choice and using shame as the vehicle for that message.
But shaming practices are not the only danger – silence is hardly better. Some of us worry that speaking to young people about sex – in a positive way, or even at all – will encourage them to engage in sexual behaviour, but the opposite is true! Those who have access to comprehensive RSE from a young age are more likely to have later first sexual experiences and are less likely to have negative sexual experiences.
The problem of poor sex-ed is not restricted to some extreme examples from prestigious private schools. Kids all over Australia are being denied access to comprehensive RSE, whether by design or omission. This denial puts young people at risk, leaves their wellbeing to chance and actively causes harm. This is not a matter of personal values, it is one of public wellbeing. We must guarantee all young people access to comprehensive RSE, for we can no longer yield to the idea that ignorance and innocence are the same thing.
Tags: sex education
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