Opinions on what is age-appropriate sex education can and do differ, but at a time when kindergartners are masters of the keyboard and have ready access to Google, adults have a greater responsibility to get ahead of self-instruction than ever before.
But, as some readers commented in response to our Sunday story on sex education in public schools in Androscoggin County, too many parents abdicate that responsibility.
That’s true, and it’s sad.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, recognized by the World Health Organization for its work advancing sexual and reproductive health through policy analysis and public education, nearly a quarter of American teenagers do not get any sex education (which includes abstinence, disease control and pregnancy prevention) at all. Not from their parents and not from their schools.
About half of American teens learn the basics of sex from schools, but fewer than half receive no formal instruction about contraception until after they’ve had sex.
In Androscoggin County, Sexual Assault Crisis Center Education Coordinators Bridget McAlonan and Molly Nelson are teaching what too many parents don’t. They teach “consent education,” meaning that they teach children the skills they need to protect their personal space from sexual predators and, when it comes to sex, the ability to consent to sexual contact on their own terms.
According to McAlonan, sex education is about developing relationships with children as they age, making them feel comfortable about asking questions when curiosity develops in their teens. It is not about “health education” presented in a single semester in the seventh-grade any more, nor has it been that way for years.
This shift in the approach to sex ed has helped reduce teen pregnancies in Maine over the past several decades, with Maine ranked last in the nation when it comes to the pregnancy rate for teens ages 15 to 19. That’s good. It means Maine’s teens, many of whom are sexually active, are getting pregnant at the lowest rate in the country, according to Guttmacher’s research, which is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.
It’s a ranking to be proud of, but not complacent about.
Sex ed is not just about pregnancy. It’s about teaching teens how to avoid becoming one of the 9 million American teens and young adults diagnosed with new sexually transmitted diseases every year. According to Guttmacher, compared with “rates among teens in Canada and Western Europe, rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia among U.S. teens are extremely high.” And, could be easily prevented with better education.
We agree with a reader who suggested that since parents are responsible for their own children, “shouldn’t they be getting (sex ed) lessons and not the kids?”
Perhaps, but since so many parents don’t or won’t teach their children the basics of sexual health, society must step in — as SACC has done — or risk the very real likelihood that these children will get pregnant or be exposed to STDs.
To suggest that teaching appropriate sexual contact “to kindergartners is just stupid and a waste of time” might be true in a perfect world. A world without sexual predators at home, in school, in youth sports and other activities, and at church. We don’t live in a perfect world.
Infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, kindergartners, middle schoolers, teenagers, young adults, adults and the elderly are sexually abused in our society. It’s wrong but it’s real.
So, how early is too early to learn about personal space?
About appropriate contact?
About sex and sexual safety?
Much of what we teach children is designed to protect them, whether they're crossing the street or driving a car. That a third of the children in this country can reach sexual maturity without receiving a basic education about sex is not just irresponsible of adults.
It’s downright dangerous.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.