Sexuality, which is not associated with sexual needs until adolescence, is already shaped in childhood based on experiences, roles learned and observed in the environment in which children grow up, and the attitudes and values of those around them. A huge role can therefore be attributed to educational and religious institutions, peer groups, the Internet, the family, caregivers and the media.
A key moment in psychosexual development is childhood, when self-esteem, identity and acceptance of sexual differences are formed, and children enjoy the discovery of their sexuality.
Abnormalities at this stage of development can affect the future and contribute to the development of disorders and difficulties in adult life. One of the most important elements of proper development is the possibility and ability to express emotions. Therefore, reliable psycho-social and sex education should be based on acceptance and healthy communication.
The basic element of communication with children is to try to understand their point of view, which is different from that of adults. If you want to reach a child with your message, you have to get as close as possible to the child’s understanding of the world. Sometimes it is enough to recall thoughts and beliefs from your childhood. They most likely differ from the beliefs of adults. It is due to the natural development of cognitive functions. Therefore, it is difficult to expect an adult level of responsibility from a teenager. This is how a young person’s perspective looks like:
- children usually ‘have time’ to complete specific tasks. Time is plentiful and passes extremely slowly. The perspective of the future ends at the closest weekend. They do not do this because of a lack of responsibility. It is a biologically-shaped developmental process;
- anything is possible, and the potential negative consequences of making a bad decision are not close enough to worry about. The greater the risk, the more fun and attractive the venture;
- pleasure and the fulfilment of their own needs are the key motivators for activity. They often blame their surroundings for any failures and try to shift the responsibility onto them to avoid punishment;
- individualism and egocentrism, which do not allow one to see the perspective of another person. According to the theory of mind, empathy is still being formed. Therefore, children are not ‘cruel’ but lack the ability to empathise with other people’s emotions.
Current challenges in sex education
In the era of our civilisation’s rapid development, the problems concerning the sexual sphere are changing. Those involved in sex education face hitherto unknown challenges caused by the emergence of new social phenomena. This is due to constant political changes, development of technology, migration of people and demand for new stimulation. Sex educators have to keep up with the latest trends and knowledge. This requires constant development on their part.
Increasingly, we observe outreach activities, which are meant to reach potentially interested people in their natural environment, such as the streets or meeting places.
The development of sexuality education also involves drawing on the experience of those involved in fields such as pedagogy, medicine and nursing.
Among the most important challenges in addressing sexuality today are:
- pre-exposure prophylaxis based on antiretroviral therapy – It involves taking medication to avoid HIV infection. This method is popular among people who have sex without barrier protection, such as a condom. The challenge for sex education, in this case, is to learn more about this type of prevention, reliably communicate its potential and possible side effects;
- chemsex – It is a phenomenon where long sessions of sexual practice (often in groups) are combined with the use of psychoactive substances. And this does not include alcohol, but drugs that are illegal in most countries, such as stimulants (e.g. mephedrone and methamphetamine) and depressants (e.g. GHB and GBL). People who engage in chemsex also often engage in risky behaviour due to reduced/altered consciousness and impaired decision-making processes. There are cases of sexual abuse when victims are under the influence of substances;
Addiction is also a major risk. Psychoactive substances are initially taken only during sex but over time, a state of permanent need for drugs in the body might develop.
- pornography – It is a particularly dangerous phenomenon for the very young. Access to the Internet equals access to pornography. With the development of technology, the age of the first experience with content unsuitable for children is falling. Even if the home computer is protected by parental control, no one has complete control over what goes on outside
We treat the viewing of pornography as a symptom. The causes, on the other hand, are developmental curiosity, the desire to learn more about sexuality, low risk awareness, emerging sexual needs, yielding to group pressure, boredom and loneliness, unattended needs of the child.
This entails several potential dangers, especially, misconceptions about sexual contacts, development of complexes, too early sexual initiation, engaging in risky sexual behaviour common in pornography, the instrumentalisation of sex (objectification of people), distorted gender roles (attribution of stereotypical characteristics such as submissiveness to women and unwavering sexual prowess to men), escalation of demand for new pornographic content, as well as other mental and sexual problems. The answer to this phenomenon is, first and foremost, education about the dangers, sound sexual education that meets the child’s natural needs and healthy communication.
- sexting and other online dangers – Electronic communication in which the message is a sexually suggestive image or content sent often without consent (both of the person receiving and the person who may be on the images). Therefore, it is often a form of cyber abuse. Cyberstalking (stalking people online) or bullying are also becoming increasingly frequent online threats. The Internet is also an enormous challenge in the fight against paedophilia. The online space offers new opportunities to commit paedophilic acts, including those that will not be carried out during a live encounter but will still have tragic consequences for the victim.
- discrimination against specific groups of people – LGBT+ rights, reproductive rights, rights of people with migration experience are important areas of concern for educators specialising in sex education and equality. Depending on the political situation and the level of inclusivity, challenges include civil partnerships, marriage equality, non-binary gender identity, the issue of abortion, menstrual exclusion, prevention of sexual violence, the topic of informed consent or the issue of surrogacy.
Elements of sex education at different stages of child development
Sex education is a process. Knowledge should be gradually expanded over a lifetime - starting from the child’s first years. It is important to remember that children are sexual beings from birth because they have gender.
Each stage of their development is characterised by specific needs. Sex education should respond to these needs, provide reliable information. It gives children a sense of security. Below you will find several topics on sexuality, divided by appropriate age for their introduction.
Elements of sex education at pre-school age:
- each part of the body has specific functions;
- people are built similarly except for a few body parts;
- people differ in their appearance (skin colour, weight, height, visible disabilities);
- all people are equal, and everyone deserves respect;
- intimate body parts are vagina, clitoris, penis, scrotum;
- babies grow in the belly, in a special place called the womb;
- adults fall in love with each other and form relationships, including same-sex relationships;
- people can be friends with each other regardless of their gender;
- people experience various feelings: they can be happy, sad, angry, lonely, surprised, ashamed, afraid;
- anger is not a bad thing, it is an important emotion, but we should not hurt other people;
- it is important to talk about feelings/emotions;
- different people experience emotions in different ways;
- the love between a child and a parent is different from the love between parents or friends;
- touching our intimate body parts generally gives us pleasure;
- we cannot touch, kiss or hug someone who does not want us to;
- child’s body is their property, and the child decides whether they can be touched during play or in any other situation;
- there are situations where adults see or touch child’s body, for example, during a medical check-up or bathing;
- it is important to come and tell parents/relatives if a child is touched by someone who makes them feel uncomfortable or does it in a way they don’t like;
- if someone touches a child and asks them not to tell anyone, they should tell someone they trust.
It is vital to protect children from harm and sexual exploitation from an early age.
It is particularly important when the child is left in the care of someone other than the parent/legal guardian. We must remember that a significant number of those who commit paedophile acts/sexual abuse are close to the family and known to the child. Preventive talks with the child should be conducted periodically.
It is important to:
- teach the child to avoid contact with strangers;
- teach the child to respect their boundaries, but also the boundaries of others;
- teach the child to be assertive and to refuse if they do not want to do something;
- do not force the child to behave submissively towards adults (for example, to kiss relatives hello/goodbye, if the child does not want to);
- make an agreement with the child: ‘If someone asks you not to say anything, be sure to tell me.’ Our agreement must come first;
- prepare a scenario with the child in case of sexual abuse, ‘If someone touches your intimate parts or makes you touch your own, you may feel strange. Be sure to come and tell me about it. The person may say it’s your secret, but let’s agree now that you will definitely tell me about it.’
Detecting sexual abuse at an early stage of development will, above all, ensure that it does not continue for years, exacerbating the trauma. Prompt psychological help can significantly minimise the negative consequences.
Elements of sex education in the first years of primary school:
- conception occurs in the genital tract;
- there are sperm in the testicles;
- there are eggs in the ovaries;
- sperm and eggs make reproduction possible;
- sexual intercourse for procreation consists of inserting penis into vagina;
- sexual intercourse serves the purpose of expressing love, experiencing pleasure, fulfilling sexual desire, and procreation;
- people over 15 years of age can have sex (according to legal norms);
- not all sources of information are reliable;
- there are sites, films, programmes, content that are not suitable for children, for example, pornography;
- everyone makes decisions and is responsible for them;
- parents, relatives or people you trust can help you to make decisions;
- no adult should touch child’s genitals except during examination at the doctor;
- sexual abuse takes place when someone touches or looks at intimate parts of a child’s body without a valid reason;
- sexual abuse occurs when someone shows their intimate body parts or urges a child to touch them;
- the person who abuses a child may ask them to keep a secret. Sometimes they blackmail and threaten. The child should still tell their parents or someone else they trust about what has happened;
- the abused person has not done anything wrong.
Elements of sex education before puberty:
- menstruation and first ejaculation are natural signs of puberty;
- the timing of the first menstrual period varies;
- there are visible changes in child’s appearance;
- there are visible changes in child’s appearance;
- reproductive organs may differ in appearance (size and curvature of penis, position of testicles, body hair, size of breasts, appearance of vulva);
- sexual tension appears;
- masturbation is a developmental strategy for relieving sexual tension;
- pornography is a category of adult films that convey false image of sexual intercourse and should not be viewed by persons under the age of 18;
- the internet poses various risks to children’s psychosexual development and safety: sexting, pornography, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, online paedophilia;
- when to see a specialist - dermatologist, venereologist, urologist, gynaecologist;
- initiation (sexual debut) should be an informed and conscious decision;
- any sexual contact requires explicit consent. Anyone can withdraw it at any time.
Education about menstruation and nocturnal emissions should be provided regardless of gender. Hiding certain stages of puberty from children whose gender is not affected can cause misunderstanding, harassment and ridicule.
When educating about menstruation or nocturnal emissions it is important to talk about the average amount of secretions so that the child does not have to rely on imagination.
When discussing the stages of puberty, it is important to develop an action plan with the child in case of bleeding/nocturnal emissions. It will protect the child from shock, embarrassment and helplessness.
It is a good idea to practice the action plan and make sure the child understands it.
Remember that not all boys experience spontaneous ejaculation at night. Tell children about this.
Do not frighten them during education. It is important to encourage a positive attitude to the changes taking place in their bodies.
Before sexual initiation, it is essential to discuss sexually transmitted infections and methods of contraception (regardless of gender). You should emphasise that sexual intercourse must be voluntary, and its participants must respect their own and others’ boundaries.
Sex education before the onset of puberty is needed not only because of the changes taking place in the body but because children are entering an age when some of them will already have had sexual intercourse - whether we talk to them about it or not. The average age of sexual initiation is 17, but it is important to remember that many people engage in sexual behaviour at an earlier age.
Standards of sound sexual education
Sex education of children and adolescents should be carried out according to methodological standards and be based on:
- knowledge of human anatomy and physiology;
- knowledge of differences in anatomical structure;
- raising awareness of the importance of the sexual sphere;
- awareness that sexual behaviour is determined not only by biological but also psychological and cultural factors;
- acceptance of gender equality and diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations;
- knowledge of human needs and emotions related to sexuality;
- knowledge of the prevention against sexually transmitted infections;
- knowledge of contraception methods;
- knowledge of hygiene and sexual health;
- development of skills to create partnerships and healthy boundaries;
- communication of sexual needs and boundaries;
- prevention of sexual violence and knowledge of how to protect oneself against it;
- knowledge of sexual disorders;
- breaking taboos related to human sexual life;
Each phase of a child’s development is linked to an increase in curiosity and the need for knowledge, including in the area of sexuality.
To ensure healthy development we need to provide accurate knowledge and stop the acquisition of false information. This will contribute not only to building a relationship based on trust but also to reducing the development of false beliefs about one’s sexuality and sexual acts. Responsibility for the sexual education of children and adolescents lies primarily with caregivers. However, research shows that it is the Internet that ranks first when it comes to sources of knowledge about sexuality.
Guidelines for conducting sex education
- Children want to talk about sexuality with those who care for them, to know their point of view, their feelings. They are curious about the world, including their bodies and the bodies of others.
- We should pass on knowledge to children and adolescents before they start asking, or seeking knowledge through available channels.
- If the person they are asking does not know the answer or has given an incorrect one, they should (together with the child) look for the correct information in the right sources. It stimulates the child’s cognitive curiosity.
- Children should be told the truth and given accurate information about human sexuality so that they do not have to ‘unlearn’ it later, or experience dissonance when they receive different information about a given topic from other available sources.
- It is perfectly natural to feel embarrassed when answering certain questions.
- Use everyday examples to educate children and adolescents (e.g. a kiss in a film, meeting a pregnant person).
- Sex education should be carried out by all those who care for the child equally, regardless of the child’s gender.
- Ideally, the content and emotions related to sex life should be positive.
- Words and concepts should be appropriately adapted to the stage of development, but the medical terms for body parts should not change. Words such as penis, scrotum and vagina are as natural to a child as an arm or a leg.
Adults’ embarrassment and the use of infantile nomenclature can cause children to stop treating them as a reliable source of information.
Children may believe that the sexual sphere is something embarrassing, bad or problematic because adults cannot talk about it freely. However, there is nothing wrong with, e.g. calling the penis a wee-wee, as long as the child knows that the correct name for this part of the body is penis.
- It is important to remember that children mainly learn by observing the behaviours in their environment - modelling attitudes is important.
- It is vital to communicate openly and to teach healthy ways of expressing emotions.
- Curiosity about sexual development should not be punished.
- Sex education is a process. It should anticipate and stimulate the psychosexual development of children and adolescents. The child must know what will happen to their body before changes take place. It will reduce fear and shock, as well as give a sense of control and provide comfort.
- Encourage questions and curiosity.
- Children do not need to know more than what their questions imply. So, don’t embarrass them, be attentive to and follow their needs.