(TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of sexual abuse, including child abuse. This post may be NSFW [although text-only]. Also, I’m heterosexual and cis, so please feel free to let me know if I’ve messed up in any way with regard to people who aren’t!)
Earlier this week, I came across this great Vice.com article by Cliff Joannu on the massive need for sex education in the UK to acknowledge same-sex relationships. A few minutes later, I came across the comments on the Facebook post that directed me to it. And I started reading these comments. A word of advice – don’t.
Currently, in so many places, what passes for “sex and relationship education” is little more than the biology of penis-in-vagina sex and pregnancy, and if you’re lucky, contraception. Nothing about relationships, nothing about communication, nothing about consent, nothing about any aspects of sex other than PIV, and nothing at all about marginalised sexualities and/or gender identities. This is woefully inadequate. Yet, calls for any sort of improvement on this, however minor, are invariably met with similar responses: children and teenagers are apparently too young to understand, teaching children this stuff is somehow imposing opinions on them, it’s seen as something children aren’t supposed to be aware of, won’t SOMEBODY think of the CHILDREN?!?!
Firstly, in the context of the more explicit stages of sex education, when someone mentions “children” it’s likely that they mean teenagers or at least children who are nearing the end of primary education, not four-year-olds as the naysayers tend to wilfully misinterpret. Secondly, the existence of trans people, non-binary genders, and sexualities other than heterosexual is not up for debate, and definitely not just an opinion. Thirdly, those who claim we should not be teaching this stuff to children forget that we are already teaching this stuff to children.
With the state of media representation and what passes for SRE as it is, we’re teaching children that only straight cis people exist, and anyone else – and it’s likely that at least one person in that classroom is, or will grow up to be, in a marginalised group – is not only inherently bad, but totally alone in their experiences. Won’t somebody think of those children, or is it just the cis heterosexual ones that matter? It seems we’re happy to teach heteronormativity and cisnormativity; it’s only when someone suggests we start including everyone in SRE that people are suddenly up in arms about imposing particular views and children not being able to understand. Here’s a thought – the only reason children would currently find marginalised sexualities and gender identities confusing or inexplicable is because they’ve grown up in a world that systematically denies their existence.
Roughly the same argument can be applied to consent – we’re already living in a rape culture, we’re already teaching children these myths, victim-blaming tactics and total disregard for consent, but nobody complains about imposing these views on children at too young an age. Children who never learn about their inherent right to say no grow up into adults who don’t feel able to say no. Unfortunately, not only will many adults encounter sexual abuse in their lifetime, but some children already are, and they need to know – we all need to know – that what is happening to them is not okay, not “just normal”, and certainly not their fault.
“Thinking of the children” requires thinking of all children, not just a hypothetical class full of straight cis children who have somehow grown up without being informed by the current general bigotry of the world. Sex and relationship education – and I don’t just mean a quick biology lesson on where babies come from – is so, so important.
Otherwise, we’re just passing on these heteronormative, cisnormative, and patriarchal attitudes to sex and relationships by default.