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Protecting the innocence of our children?

[Posted May 2024]


The UK government has released new statutory guidance around sex education in schools. The guidelines are intended to “… put in place safeguards to keep children safe in an increasingly complex world” whilst protecting the “innocence of childhood”. It’s caused a furore among many sex educators, around safety, gender identity and more.


As you can probably imagine I have strong feelings about the guidance [linked at the bottom of this page] – especially around safety. Before I even start on that, though: the guidance states “Age limits are focused on topics which, even when presented in a careful and well-intentioned way, may inadvertently give the message to young people that they could or should be engaging in or exploring adult activities rather than enjoying childhood.”


When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation reviewed 87 studies into the impact of sex education*, they found education delays the age at which young people first have sexual contact with others, makes it more likely activities are consensual, more likely safer sex practices are followed, and results in fewer partners and pregnancies. Education is a good thing. Let’s keep that in mind as we read on.


The new UK guidelines state: “The concepts and laws around harmful sexual behaviour, including unsolicited sexual language/attention/touching” should not be taught until year 7 (age 11-12); and:  “The concepts and laws relating to sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault… should not be taught in any sexually explicit way before year 9” (age 13-14). Lessons about “sexual consent and [a person’s] capacity to give or withhold consent at any time, even if initially given” are not to be taught before year 9.


But is that early enough for the 1 in 20 children the NSPCC says are sexually abused in the UK? An NSPCC research review says that abuse risk rises around age 11, boys at a certain age are as vulnerable as girls, and points out child-to-child abuse happens as well as adult-to-child.** Meanwhile research in the US states children are most at risk of abuse between ages 7 and 13***.


I don’t believe the delay in teaching on these topics until early teens will protect children.


What about the dangers of porn? The UK’s communications regulator Ofcom says the average age at which a child first sees online porn is 13, but a quarter have seen it by age 11 and ten per cent by age 9****. But the guidelines state that porn literacy in any explicit way mentioning any sexual acts should not be covered until age 13-14. So we risk kids thinking mainstream porn is ’how to do sex’ – that choking, anal, fisting and gang bangs are all part of normal sex.


Again, I don’t agree that this guidance will keep children safe. I speak to intelligent midlife adults struggling to un-learn damaging patterns from viewing porn… How are children supposed to understand it’s not ‘real’?


But something I do agree on – or rather, agree should be the case – is the statement the guidance starts with: “We know that parents are their children’s primary educators.” The guidance says that if a child asks something not covered by the recommendations or where they are not yet at the allocated age, the teacher tell them to speak to a parent or trusted adult. But my experience suggests few parents feel confident talking with their kids about sex – usually the opposite.


More typically, parents are themselves uneducated/uniformed, embarrassed, don’t want to face that their children are sexual beings, and have no idea what kids are viewing in hardcore mainstream porn. They are not in a strong position to deliver effective sex education to their children.


So what’s the solution? To focus on education for the adults.


I was asked by a major UK newspaper this week to provide an article setting out the ages at which children should learn about different aspects of sex, how to open the conversation, what terminology to use etc. I declined to write it – I have no qualifications or experience teaching in schools or around child sexual development (why I am always careful to introduce myself as an adult sex educator), so am definitely not the person to go up against the new guidelines in print.


But I pointed out that even armed with such an article, most parents may struggle due to their own embarrassment and fears.


So I offered in return a piece about how parents and carers can best prepare themselves to step up to fulfil the educator role, arguing passionately that this is what’s actually needed in order to keep children safe and prepare them for sexual adulthood. The paper turned down that idea (I’m pitching it to others), but here’s an overview of what I would have included.


  • Examine your own feelings about sex, knowledge around it, and comfort level talking to your children. Also your level of awareness of the content of online porn and what you most want your child to understand about it. If you feel discomfort and unease in any of those areas, work to understand why, and address that.


  • You may need to go on a journey of education (such as my course The Passion8 Programme, books, podcasts, documentaries), and unpick your own shame and negative beliefs (working with a coach such as myself, or in the case of unresolved trauma, a therapist). Then, talking to your child about an activity which encompasses their safety, happiness, pleasure and relational abilities will feel important and natural. Coaching clients who are parents, who’ve come to me about their own sex lives, will often tell me an unexpected benefit of coaching is that they are now able to talk easily to their kids.


  • Analyse the new government guidelines and the critique around them. Do the age bands feel right for your child? How about what’s being left out, that you many need to teach entirely? For example, if you want your kids to know that for some people, their gender identity is not the same as the biological sex they were born with, you’ll need to teach that yourself. It is banned under the new guidelines.


  • Think ‘stage-appropriate’ for your children. What have they been asking about, what’s the maturity of their friends they hang out with, where’s their physical and hormonal development at? A physically matured 11 year old hanging out with older kids will need different education to an 11 year old who’s not yet started puberty and whose friends haven’t yet either.


  • If you have a partner or you co-parent, discuss all the above together and ideally agree on the approach you will take with educating your child.


  • Ask the parents/carers of your child’s best friends what information they are sharing and what their sources are, to ideally be on the same page.



There is an opportunity here that benefits adults as well as kids. When adults learn more about sex, I see their health, happiness, and intimate relationships improve. In seeking to learn more for your child’s sake you’ll likely find your own understanding of your erotic self and your own sex life, and relationship or marriage if you are in one, improves no end!


Parents and carers – I would love to learn more about the challenges you are facing and your feelings about the new guidelines.



teens in a classroom by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash)


LINKS

The UK guidance: “This document contains information on what schools should do and sets out the legal duties with which schools must comply when teaching relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education”:






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