"Why should we start sexuality education before the age of 12?” is the question that assembled specialists from four continents have been trying to answer in the Dutch town of Amersfoort. “It teaches young people to have sex early, it’s against our culture, it’s against our religion, you’re imposing it on us, it’s the parents’ responsibility, and you have no proof that it works,” argues Dhianaraj Chetty of UNESCO.
Mr Chetty was speaking on Tuesday at a two-day conference with the theme “Sexuality under 18”, run by the soon-to-be-merged Dutch organisations the World Population Foundation (WPF) and the Rutgers Nisso Groep (Dutch Expert Centre on Sexuality). And the views are not his own. In a session on the thorny topic of sex education in primary schools, Mr Chetty has been asked to role-play the part of a conservative politician arguing the case against sex education for young children. He’s heard the arguments often enough to trot them out in a row.
WPF’s Sanderijn van der Doef agrees with Mr Chetty’s imaginary conservative politician on at least one point. “I absolutely believe you should do it based on a gut feeling,” she says, “but I have no evidence that it works.” While there might be a lack of research-based evidence, however, Ms Van der Doef is quick to cite the low rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion in the Netherlands, where sexuality education is built in to the school curriculum from primary school age onwards.
But sexuality education in primary schools isn’t just limited to countries such as the Netherlands, with a reputation for sexual openness. WPF’s Andri Yoga Utami – in Islamic headscarf – has been running a programme in Indonesia to train kindergarten teachers to teach their young pupils about sexuality. It’s a tricky topic to deal with in Indonesia, where one book on sexuality aimed at young children has been banned in response to protests from conservative Islamic clergy.
The key to Ms Utami’s pioneering project was to take account of everyone involved, she says – the board included parents and religious leaders. Alongside the module for teachers, the project produced a guide for parents. The lessons were explained so parents wouldn’t worry their children were being encouraged to have sex at an early age. Nevertheless, it’s no easy matter to get past the taboos. “We had to get the teachers to practise every day just to be able to say the words vagina and penis,” says Ms Utami.
Where do babies come from? “The stork brings them,” was the reply from the international assembly of sexuality education specialists. “You find them under a bush.” A particularly popular answer among the Africans present: “You buy them from the hospital.” It brings home the point that the alternative to sex education for the under-12s is the traditional approach of palming them off with a lie. So how do you give a proper answer to this age-old question posed by young children?
“You simply tell them that the man has a sperm and the woman has an egg and they come together to make a baby,” says Andri Yoga Utami. Doesn’t that immediately elicit the question “how?” Not according to Sanderijn van der Doef. She claims she’s given this explanation to thousands of young children and never been asked to fill in the details. It seems that even the dyed-in-the-wool sex educators can be squeamish when it comes to telling infants about penises and vaginas.
The NGO-speak ‘sexuality education’ rather than the old-fashioned term ‘sex education’ is used for a good reason – to show there’s more to the matter than just talking about where babies come from. Sexuality is a topic that encompasses everything from love and relationships to sexual rights and sexual violence. Sexuality education isn’t just about being honest with children, Ms Utami points out, it’s also about protecting them.
She has seen communities in Indonesia where child sexual abuse was rife. But the children were unable to tell anyone about their plight simply because they couldn’t understand what was happening to them, and they lacked the vocabulary to talk about it. “You have to explain about the genitals to protect against sex abuse. Children need to know that there are parts of their body not everyone may touch.”
A Brazilian participant points out that delaying education on sex isn’t an option in countries where it’s common for children to leave school aged 13 or 14. It’s precisely these young people who become parents at a young age. If they don’t get information on sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and relationships early on, the window of opportunity is missed.
Dhianaraj Chetty, of UNESCO’s Paris-based division on priorities in education, says the key to sexuality education is introducing the topic to children young and building up incrementally, adding information appropriate to their age as they grow – just as you would do with any other subject at school. But the most stubborn claim to combat is that talking to kids about sex encourages them to do it at an early age, says Mr Chetty. He would be happy if he could just get across his simplest reason for starting sexuality education before the age of 12: “It doesn’t do any harm.”