The primary curriculum in the UK is being redesigned to introduce clearer education on consent from as young as four years old. Sex education will become compulsory for school children from September 2020 and according to Department for Education (DfE) proposals, health education will be a mandatory part of the curriculum for all primary and secondary schools in England in couple of years time.
The move has stirred controversy and debate on social media in parenting forums. Many parents have been outraged about a four-year-old being spoken to about sex, and they are concerned about exposing their children to differences between male and female bodies so openly from a young age. There is still a culture of fear around sex and sex education.
As a mother of a 21-year-old and two-year-old twins, I have been weighing up the pros and cons of introducing sex education to very young children. I grew up in India, and the only sex education we received was the Biology lesson in High School where boys twittered and girls blushed. This was almost the pre-internet era and magazines and media did not talk openly about sex, especially in a fairly traditional Indian society. Even here in the UK, my eldest child didn’t receive much sex education at school before year nine, when she was 13.
In contrast to this, sex education in Dutch classrooms has become progressively more comprehensive. In the Netherlands, the classes are matter-of-fact and focussed on building a sense of respect for boundaries from the age of four - both their own and others’. Children are taught skills on how to say “no” until they feel they are ready for sex and to act responsibly in terms of contraception.
Research shows that starting sex education early can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and even sexual abuse later down the road. In the current era of #MeToo it is imperative that we give our girls, and boys, the tools and the awareness of their own bodies, and an understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. Teaching from a young age about consent gives children control, and can prevent sexual exploitation. It also makes sex education more inclusive by discussing gender identity, as recent research has shown that sex education, in its current form, is not LGBTQ inclusive.
Most sex education in the UK is broken down into ‘age-appropriate’ categories, with no mention of LGBTQ and gender identity at a young age. Gender is not discussed comprehensively in early years, which means that often children can grow up confused as well as being bullied for being different. The problem with the ‘age-appropriate’ approach is also that sex is taught from the perspective of abstinence, rather than an honest and open conversation within a framework which supports natural curiosity around sex. This can create a feeling of shame, fear and stigma rather than an informed and healthy attitude towards hormonal changes, sexual attraction, desire and pleasure.
In the Netherlands, teenagers engage in sex much later than in the US or the UK and often only in loving relationships, despite being given the tools and information around sex from a young age. The rate of teenage pregnancy is much lower, and the Netherlands now outperforms most countries on various global metrics for sexual-health outcomes. Girls are not expected to take a passive role in expressing their sexual identity, needs and desires. With information and education, girls feel more empowered from a young age, which means that bullying and inappropriate sexual behaviour is not as prevalent. It is no surprise that on the United Nations Development Program Gender Inequality Index, showing the disparity between genders, the Netherlands ranks at number seven while the UK is way down at number 16.
The concerns around introducing sexual education at a young age are not unfounded if teachers do not receive proper training and if sex is still viewed within a gendered framework. If this DfE proposal has to prove successful, it is important that educators are committed to providing children with a supportive, matter-of-fact environment where they can talk honestly and candidly about their feelings and thoughts, and where they are not stigmatised or ostracised for their natural curiosity around sex.