We need to talk to children about realities of sex

In France, a 3D model of a clitoris is passed around primary and secondary schools during sex education classes. “Oh that’s just the sexually-liberated French for ya,” you might say, writes Joyce Fegan.

The anatomically correct model was, however, only introduced in August 2016, following a damning report by the French government into the state of sex education there.

So it appears we aren’t the only ones in need of revolutionising how we talk to our young people about sex.

The thing about the French and their information around the clitoris is, unlike all other organs in the human body, the clitoris’s central role is one of pleasure. This is where we fall down.

After all, who wants to talk to their student or child about sex for pleasure? But, for the most part, our young people are not exploring each others’ bodies with procreation in mind.

We all need to grow up when it comes to talking about sex. And first off, and most importantly, we need to stop seeing is as “wrong” or “dirty” or “shameful”.

“We are sexual beings. If we make out that sex is dirty and shameful, or is forbidden, all we do is ensure we don’t talk about it. Our historic catholic roots have ensured we don’t talk sex and our bodies,” says child psychotherapist Joanna Fortune.

We have generations of shame around sex to overcome. When we don’t talk about something it becomes secretive and then it becomes shameful by default. We grew up with the message that only married people had sex and only for procreation purposes.

However, very young children will instinctually explore their own body for pleasure.

“Very small children start exploring their own body and discover it feels good. It’s important not to say: ‘Oh, that’s dirty.’ Don’t shame them,” says Ms Fortune.

“As parents begin this conversation it’s important they don’t shy away from sex as a healthy expression of the human condition,” she adds.

In terms of developmental stages, three to five-year-olds are intensely curious about other people’s bodies and questions about why someone has hair where someone else does not, are perfectly normal.

By the time children reach their early teens, their “hormones are in overdrive” and “they are already experiencing pressure from peers about who is kissing who”, explains Ms Fortune.

To ratchet it up a notch in the reality stakes, masturbation and fantasy are very common at this age too, states the psychotherapist.

By the teenage years, the sex-ed conversation must absolutely include pleasure and mutual consent. It’s OK to experience the body as pleasurable and not shameful. I have so much empathy for parents here as it isn’t a conversation you ever imagine having with your child, but in this day and age, but if you don’t the internet will.

Speaking of the internet and to bring in another voice here, let’s talk to Shawna Scott who runs Sex Siopa, an online sex shop based in Ireland. Ms Scott’s business places her at the forefront of Irish sexuality. 

Her clients range greatly in age and her most sought after items include lubricant, vibrators and a book called Bare, which is currently sold out. Bare details the sexual fantasies of real Irish women.

She extremely realistic when it comes to sex education.

“Teachers are parents don’t want to have to talk to students about sex for pleasure but the vast majority of sex that people have is for pleasure and not reproduction.

Shawna Scott
Shawna Scott

“We have to talk about sex for pleasure so that way we make sure everyone is having a safe and pleasurable time, because at the minute we are teaching about sex in terms of damage control and pregnancy prevention instead of being positive and proactive,” says Ms Scott.

Much like Ms Fortune she attributes our reluctance to talk about sex to shame and how conversations lead to the “perfect storm of awkwardness”.

“Parents don’t want to talk to kids about sex and kids don’t want to be spoken to about sex by their parents. No one wants to imagine the other having sex and it creates the perfect storm of awkwardness,” says Ms Scott.

So where does this leave us? We have human beings exploring each others bodies, as is perfectly natural, but only a handful of people talking about it because the rest of us are too embarrassed to, so we put our heads in the sand?

This is where porn enters the debate. If we aren’t openly discussing sex, pleasure and our bodies in healthy and realistic ways, then information will be sourced elsewhere.

From her work with secondary school students Ms Fortune is acutely aware that “pornography is part of our young people’s sex education”.

It’s fantasy-based, that’s its intention. If our young people look at that without critical thinking and emotional intelligence they think that is what sex is.

If you think sex is a hard topic to broach with your young person, then porn is an even harder one. But not talking about one, inevitably leads you to the other.

I would argue, because of the culture our young people have grown up in, that they experience far less shame around their bodies than the older generations.

They have grown up in a culture where contraception was legal, my parents did not. They were born into a society where homosexuality was legal, I was born into one where it was not. They have been born into a country now discussing abortion in terms of healthcare, as opposed to a moral sin. 

It is absolutely crucial that we do not take the usual instinctive approach, as is common in most shame-based cultures, and start beating ourselves up because we are too ashamed to address sex and pleasure with our young people.

We need to have empathy for where we have come from. We need to address our own shame around sex and understand where it came from. 

And in the irony of all ironies we need to forgive ourselves for the shame we feel, when it comes to the human body and its plethora of functions.

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