World / Asia-Pacific

Sex education, life education

By Michael L. Tan (asianewsnet) Updated: 2012-12-19 10:50

One of the most contentious provisions in the approved reproductive health bill has been that of sexuality education, with earlier versions proposing its inclusion in grade school, but which, through negotiations, ended up limited to high school. But even this postponement of sexuality education to high school has met opposition, on the argument that it should be done at home, and that discussing sexual matters in school will lead to promiscuity.

We will just have to live with the law, thankful it finally got passed, but I thought I should share some light personal accounts to argue for sexuality education at an early age.

All children are curious about their bodies, including their genitals and the differences between males and females. They also ask about how babies are made. When they ask questions about these matters, you can't just give answers like "You're still too young. I'll tell you when you're older."'

There's only so much you can do to shelter children from the hypersexualised images in modern society: in mass media, in advertising, in entertainment especially, and in the conversations of adults… and older children―for example, high school students trying to show they're grown up. Kids will learn, very early, to say someone's "sexy", courtesy of all those noontime shows with gyrating dancers, male and female. They hear songs like "Birthday Sex". Soon they begin to link "sex" with romantic scenes on TV, even just kissing.

As soon as they can spell, the more adventurous ones will type "sex" in a computer search engine. You can activate restrictions on Web access on your cell phone and computer but the kids will find ways―in their friends' computers, or in Internet cafés.

When you refuse to talk about sex, and forbid kids from searching on their own, you only make them more curious, and they can end up with more misinformation. On the other hand, willingness to discuss sex and sexuality with children means that they will come to you whenever they have a question.

Let me get now to three amusing stories to show why sexuality education is needed from early childhood.

A few months back, my then 6-year-old son asked if I could give him a bath. I repeated what I'd been saying for some time―that he was a big boy now and could manage a bath on his own. This time, though, I thought I'd add some sexuality education.

I introduced the term "private parts" and when he asked why those parts ended up with a soldier's rank, I explained "private" as something one owns, that no one, not even his father, or relatives, or household helpers, or friends, had a right to touch. It was a fairly short conversation but, being a teacher, I asked him to summarise what we had just discussed.

"No one has the right to touch my private parts," he said.

So I asked: "And what if someone tries to?"

He paused for a few seconds then blurted out: "I'd say, ‘Marry me first.'"

"Tumpak!" I praised him, laughing out loud as well at how he seemed to have picked up on marriage lately. I in fact have a second story to tell about his views on marriage but wanted to say the "private parts" lesson didn't end there. The next morning I overheard him in the toilet calling out, "Private, salute!"

Second incident. Earlier this year I was talking with a close friend on the cell phone about his houseboy having eloped with a new domestic helper. My son was next to me and when I ended my phone conversation, he told me, "You know, that houseboy freaks me out."

My son visits that friend's house quite often to play with his kids, so I was curious about why the houseboy was upsetting him.

"Every time the labandera (laundry woman) washes clothes, I see him sitting next to her and he's always looking freaky at her."

I asked him to elaborate.

"It's that look… that ‘I want to marry you' look. That's why they're gone now. They're probably married now."

That exchange reminded me that kids may be very innocent, and yet perceptive. They know the "I want to marry you" look, picked up probably from television. In some ways, my son was more perceptive than my adult friend, who was cluelless about the houseboy courting the laundry woman.

What about the "making babies" part? My approach is to throw the question back to them and see what their latest theory is. The latest one from my son is this: "When a woman wants to have a baby, she begins to eat, and eat, and eat. She has to eat lots of food so a baby grows inside her. Then when the baby's grown, then the doctor can take out the baby."

When he was younger he already talked about babies coming out of a mother's "tummy", so I asked if that was where the doctor would take out the baby.

"No, no, babies don't come out from the tummy," he answered, making me feel rather dumb, "They come out from the woman's." (Now I'm censoring myself for the sake of adult readers who may not feel comfortable about this issue.) My son got that part right.

There―within a year, he had changed his idea of pregnancy. Sex still doesn't figure in here, but I know it won't be long before he wonders… and asks. If he doesn't, I'll have to bring up the topic when he gets close to puberty, together with discussions about boyfriends and girlfriends and issues of responsibility in relationships. The fact is that attraction and crushes, so-called puppy love, happen even before puberty, during middle childhood, which is between the ages of 6 and about 10, so you better make sure your kids are prepared to handle all these changes in the body and in the mind.

Comfortable as I am with discussing sexuality with kids at home, I believe schools need to tackle sexuality education because you get to the kids with their peer groups, getting them to exchange information and views, with adult guidance. Sexuality education in schools also means getting to the kids whose parents refuse to talk about sex and sexuality at home, and there are many of them.

The new reproductive health law's provisions on sexuality education will mean we have to prepare schools and school teachers, many of whom are themselves uncomfortable and/or poorly informed about the many topics that fall under sexuality education.

It is unfortunate that those opposed to the reproductive health bills were thinking only of condoms and sex when they opposed sexuality education. We're talking here about much more than the birds and the bees. Sexuality education consists of life survival skills that will make an important difference when it comes to children protecting themselves from sexual abuse, children learning about falling in love, and handling heartbreak and "I want to marry you" looks, children learning to be gender-sensitive, caring and responsible in their relationships.

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