Is talking to kids about sex harmful?
Dear Stop It Now!,
I don't think children should be taught about sex. I think it can be harmful and damaging to them and they need to be allowed to be kids! If adults talk to them about this kind of thing, wouldn't they be more likely to act out inappropriate behaviors? Isn't this the reason why we're hearing more about children harming other kids? Isn't talking to kids about sex the opposite of keeping them safe from sexual abuse?*
Dear Concerned Community Member,
It makes sense that you want children to grow up happy, healthy, and safe - and we certainly agree with you on that. I'm glad you reached out to us to share your opinion, and I'd be happy to talk with you about what we know regarding children's sexual behaviors and the importance of youth learning about healthy sexual behavior in an age-appropriate way.
Being An Askable Adult
We hear from so many people like yourself who are worried that by talking to young children about healthy sexuality, they will be exposing them to content that is inappropriate or that may cause them to prematurely behave sexually. What we know is that children and youth are exposed to sex and sexuality in so many venues in their everyday lives so that even if parents don't have these conversations with them, they see sexual behaviors and language on that billboard on the street that shows a woman in a bikini selling beer; or hear sexual content from the kid sitting next to them on the bus talking about what they saw when they looked up "boobs" online, or by watching TV, going on YouTube, and chatting with friends on their gaming platforms.
Kids are often exposed to things that they don't understand and that may not be appropriate for them - we can't protect them all the time no matter how hard we try, but when parents and caregivers are there to answer their questions and be adults who are willing to talk with them, they are able to combat any unsafe or confusing messages with information that is safe, true, and healthy. We can't discount just how important it is for youth to have protective adults there to answer difficult questions for them in a way that is both caring and age-appropriate.
Developmentally-Appropriate Sexual Behavior
As children grow, they do need information about their bodies and about the world around them. Even at a young age, there are Age-Appropriate Sexual Behaviors that children may engage in - such as a child self-soothing by touching their genitals, wanting to learn about where babies come from, or being curious about the differences between people with penises and those with vaginas.
Children need guidance from caregivers because they are first learning about absolutely everything - and one of the things they need to learn is that part of being a human is having a body that one needs to care for. Learning about healthy sexual development means being able to tailor guidance specifically to a child's age and stage. When we're talking about young children, this involves asking them what they know and then giving them short and easily-digestible answers, teaching them about public versus private activities, and giving them accurate names for their body parts. As kids get older, the information they need will also expand as their capacity to understand and process also develops. And healthy sexual development information isn't just information about the practicalities of sex: it is just as much about healthy touch, relationships (both friendships, familial relationships and romantic ones), consent, respect, how to hear a "no" from someone and what to do with those feelings, and learning about empathy, care, and communication with others. These are tools that parents start giving their kids from the time they are babies and helps them have healthy, safe, and satisfying relationships as teens and adults.
Healthy Information as Abuse Prevention
We want parents and caregivers to give children resources to healthy sexual development information because we want youth to learn about sex and sexuality from a healthy, safe, and accurate source - rather than from peers who may have misinformation, or from the internet which has a lot of mature and explicit information that's not appropriate for kids, or from someone who may have harmful intentions towards that child. People who are could be at-risk to sexually abuse a child often look to single out kids who don't know much or weren't given information about sex and sexuality, and giving youth these resources is like giving them an extra layer of protection; they can go to parents with their questions and know they won't be turned away when they want to know more. And when kids are curious, they'll find a way to get information even if their parent says that they're "too young" to be asking that question.
Children's Sexually Inappropriate Behaviors
You're also right in thinking that child-child sexually inappropriate behaviors do need to be talked about more, because Up to 50% of Child Sexual Abuse is Caused by Other Children. But, even when a child does cross sexual boundaries with another child, they may not fully understand just how harmful their behavior can be - as you're right that they don't have our adult viewpoints, knowledge, and experience with sex and sexuality. Children sexually harm other children for very different reasons than an adult who sexually abuses a child. There are also many contributing factors as to why a child may act in a sexually inappropriate way - and certainly a lack of information or exposure to more mature material (like pornography) or abuse (not only sexual abuse, but all forms of abuse or violence) are all things that can play a role.
Also, when we as adults and caregivers know what's appropriate, feel comfortable intervening when something is inappropriate, and even feel confident when broaching these difficult topics with youth, children benefit. Adults become people that they can trust and talk to, people who will answer questions - even tough ones - and all this can be yet another layer of protection so that kids are less vulnerable to abuse. Unfortuantely sexual abuse does happen, but when there are firm boundaries at home about privacy, respect, and consent (something we call a Family Safety Plan), a child is more likely to know when something is going on that is unsafe even before abuse happens (for more on this topic, see this page called Talking to Children and Teens). These strong boundaries can make it easier for adults to speak up to other adults about their behaviors too.
Removing Barriers to Disclosures of Harm and Abuse
Finally, if a child ever does experience sexual abuse, understanding about healthy sexuality gives them language to tell someone what is happening. We hear all too often on our helpline some of the pitfalls of children not being given information about their bodies - they think that what they're going through is normal or that it's their fault. It could also be that they tried to say something to an adult, but weren't understood, such as the stories we've heard about children who were taught to call their genitalia "cutesy names", such as calling their vagina a pocketbook or their penis a bird. So what happens is that when the child says that someone is going into their pocketbook or touching their bird, adults don't do anything because they're not thinking that a child is referring to their genitals and they don't understand that the child is being abused.
All this isn't told to scare you, but instead to stress the importance and need for adults to talk with children about healthy sexuality in a way that is developmentally targeted to their age and level of understanding.
Stop It Now!
Last edited on: July 27th, 2021