The impact of sex education on the sexuality and sexual expression on Children and young people

Children & Young People (CYP) viewing and being exposured to information which is too explicit for the age & maturity of the young person can be traumatic. Such early contact with sexual information which is too much too soon can have an emotional impact on their later sexual experience and development. That may contribute to sexual dysfunctions and problems in relationships. Sex education (Sex ed) is often the first such exposure to material which is explicit. That is fast changing with the increasing use of PC’s at an earlier age and the websites that are recommended and get a viewing – under the radar of parental monitoring.

Sexually explicit material (and here I am referring to material that is too much too such – rather than very explicit on its own) can cause trauma. That trauma can be at work in a suckle and unconscious way, but in time set the CYP on a path towards increased vulnerability to sexual compulsive and addictive disorders.

Even if sexual dysfunction does not manifest in later life, other relational issues may have an increased prevalence and potential. The visual imprint which is carving out the sexual template has a long exposure time in the brain, leaving an impression that may be activated adversely in the future. It also may have normalised thinking about what the image depicted.

There is acknowledgment by the government that CYP are being pushed into grown-up territory well before their time. Sex education needs to be included in the debate about the sexually explicit nature of some of the sex ed resources deemed age appropriate for viewing by CYP. If sex ed is made compulsory in primary schools then we already have a wealth of publications that will almost certainly be used and endorsed. Many of those NHS and Department for Education endorsed literature and website material can reasonability be classed as too much too soon and predisposing many CYP’s to future sexual dysfunctions, including sexual addiction.

 

School’s responsibility

Sex and relationship education in schools arises out of the Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) framework. Inappropriate images should not be used, nor explicit material not directly related to explanation and schools should ensure pupils are protected from such materials having regard to age and cultural background. Schools will also want to ensure that children are protected from accessing unsuitable materials on the Internet.

They should have a sex and relationship education programme tailored to age, physical and emotional maturity. That requires a graduated, age-appropriate programme of sex and relationship education. Teaching methods need to take account of developmental differences. They should consult with parents before the transition into secondary school about the detailed content of what will be taught.

The flood gate could be further opened to the plethora of material readily available, much of which challenge the boundaries of age appropriateness. There are those who are quite against such a national curriculum and have alternative resources they deem more age appropriate. They include Lovewise and CARE’s Evaluate programme of teaching.

In one camp are those who believe that there is an international human right to comprehensive sex education, which right can only be realised if children as young as five and possibly even preschoolers are taught about their sexual right to sexual pleasure

There are those who ask whether some current sex ed material is so graphic as to be hazardous to a child’s health and pose a rhetorical question asking “you’re teaching my child what!”. Dr Miriam Grossman is one such person and that question is the title of her book in 2009. She and others challenge the premise that CYP are completely capable of making responsible sexual decisions and can think through complex issues, plan ahead and consider consequences; referring to their restricted brain development which affects decision making. They point to lack of judgment, not lack of information.

 

Age appropriate or pornography?

First exposure to sexually explicit material (even in the guise of sex education) if it is age inappropriate or age indigestible is a link to future sex addiction. Normalising and desensitisation to explicit material takes place too soon and which sets up CYP for future relational sexual dysfunctions and mental health issues. Larry & Wendy Maltz (2008, p.25) say that:

“If you have issues with porn today, chances are they can be trace back to your early encounters with pornography. Childhood is a formative and vulnerable period in a person’s life, a time when our attitudes are shaped and many of our behaviours take root”

Frequent news stories include the following:

“A sexual disaster for teenagers and society…sharp rise in teenage pregnancy.” (Telegraph view, 2010).

“This is the first generation growing up seeing rape before even losing their virginity…

…Boys swap sex sites at break time…

…Even 10 year olds post pictures of themselves in their underwear…

…Between 60-90% of under 16’s have viewed hardcore online porn….

….Teens are spending on average 1 hour 40 minutes per week (87 hours per year) viewing online porn. The single largest group of internet porn consumers is children aged 12-17….

…dramatic increase in young girls using the internet to become amateur porn stars. Porn is equated with sexual training and a manual. Desensitization to sexually explicit porn is taking place in an ever younger age. Girls view porn to check out others girls and normalise own sexual behaviour and attitudes”. (Aitkenhead, pp52-59, 2010).

Sexual templates are unconsciously created from youth and will contribute to possible sexual dysfunctions, including addiction. We know that CYP see their first porn by aged 9-11 and the single largest porn group users are aged 12-17. 60-90% of under 16’s have viewed online porn and teens are spending on average 1 hr 40mins per week viewing online porn. The primary focus is masturbation. Addictive and excessive masturbation then sets them up for continued false intimacy, rather than sex in relationships with real people. Instead Cybersex sex is preferred by many.

 

Child development

Education sits alongside social, emotional, moral and cognitive development. Children develop at different rates. Growth spurts and plateaus, heredity and environmental factors all have substantial contributions. Sex ed has to be considered in the context of child developmental patterns – a time of potential greatest impact and influence.

More controversially is the biological vulnerability argument – that young girl’s cervix is only one cell thick. As such it is easily penetrated by the human papillomavirus which can cause cervical cancer (although a vaccination is now available). Only the maturing process of time allows the surface of the cervix to develop 30 to 40 layers, making infection penetration more difficult. Delaying sexual intercourse is a strong indicator which is advanced within this “biological vulnerability” argument.

 

Brain development

Since the mid 1990’s we have had very concrete and persuasive scientific evidence that the teen brain is immature and functions differently from an adult. Their brain does not reach full maturity until the third decade of life. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the last area to develop and is the brain’s centre for reasoning, judgment, self evaluation and planning. It suppresses impulses and makes decisions rationally, weighing up the pros and cons, alongside consequences. Since that part of the brain is not fully mature until mid-twenties, the CYP is susceptible to the amygdala (a principle structure of the “feeling” brain) which has matured. The amygdala is more short-sighted, emotion driven and thus susceptible to coercion and peer pressure.

 

Consequences of too much too soon

CYP are getting a secure base (which we need to get from early attachments to a mother figure from an early age) from their computer, mobile phone and other gadgets. They are becoming the surrogate significant other person in the CYP’s life. Such gadgets create new allegiances and reliance such that “false intimacies” are created with these gadgets that are a substitute for real person relationships. Cybersex becomes even more prevalent

In the USA porn addiction is described as the newest and most challenging mental health problem. The issue is whether sex ed can play a role in limiting the current and next generation of CYP becoming one of those statistics or is sex ed unwittingly contributing.

A key issue is when does legitimate sex ed stop and porn begin. That was the subject of controversy surrounding a Channel 4 show “The joy of teen sex”, which was branded as porn by Mediawatch UK in January 2011 (Daily mail, 2011). It was deemed to have crossed the line into prurience, with graphic scenes of sex that can only be described as pornographic, whilst the show claimed to offer sex advice to under 18’s, but airs after the watershed.

Many parents are abdicating sex education responsibility and leaving it to schools, peers, the internet, library and other mediums as their main (and sometimes only source) of sex education. That leaves CYP with deficits in their knowledge, which they fill in with information from those sources, which take on truth and dogma, long enough for damage to be done – at a time when the brain is not yet fully developed. Misinformation, sexual myths and reluctance to seek third person authoritative input compounds the psychological factors which lead to sexual dysfunction and addictions.

Sex ed should be an integrated education process that is developmentally appropriate, truly evidence-based and builds upon itself year by year. A review of the sex ed material available to CYP and ensuring age appropriate viewing within the sex ed curriculum may now be a process which will have minimal impact unless parents take a more active role.

Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. There are increased sexually transmitted infections amongst CYP. Both of those factors makes it a disincentive to reduce available material and the trade off may remain that of the less quantifiable sexual dysfunction rate – which statistics and treatment shifts from being an Education issue to Health services (such as sex therapy).

Gary McFarlane BA, LLM

 

Gary is a Relate trained and experienced Relationship counsellor, Mediator and undertakes Sex Therapy & Sex Addiction treatment all of which are undertaken by Skype, telephone and face to face with clients from all parts of the country. He is also a member of BACP and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity and is Accredited by ACC.

 

Email: gary.g.mcfarlane@blueyonder.co.uk

Website: www.garymcfarlane.com

Tel: 0786 609 7247

 

 

 

Bibliography

Aitkenhead, D., 2010. Teenage kicks – are they hooked on porn? [Online] Available at: <http://www.psychologies.co.uk/articles/are-teenagers-hooked-on-porn/> [Accessed 27 January 2010]

Carnes, Patrick. (1997). Don’t Call it Love. Minnesota: Gentle Press.

Cole, B, Mummy Laid An Egg, Red Fox, 1995 edition. Recommended 5+ years; Manning, M and Granström, B. How did I begin?, Franklin Watts, 2004 edition, Page 6. Recommended 5+ years; Mayle, P, Where did I come from? Facts of life without any nonsense and with illustrations, Macmillian, 2006 edition. Recommended 7+ years; Cohen, J, The Primary School Sex and Relationships Education Pack, HIT UK, 2005; de Meza, L M and De Silva, S, Whiteboard Active Sex and Relationship Education, BBC Active, 2010 edition; Harris, R, H, Let’s Talk About Sex, Walker Books, 1995 edition. http://www.brook.org.uk/a-z-of-sex; http://www.thesite.org/sexandrelationships/havingsex/styles;  http://www.thesite.org/sexandrelationships/couples/lifeasacoule/pornandrelationships; http://signpostings.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/young20rainbows20email3.pdf.

Daily Mail, 2011. Fury as Channel 4 teaches youngsters Kama Sutra positions in graphic ‘Joy Of Teen Sex’. Daily Mail [Online]. 10 January 2011. Available at: <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1345555/Fury-Channel-4-teaches-youngsters-Karma-Sutra-positions-graphic-Joy-Teen-Sex.html> [Accessed on 27 January 2011].

Department for Education and Employment, 2000. Sex and Relationship Guidance. [PDF]. Nottingham: Department for Education and Employment. Available at: http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DfES-0116-2000%20SRE.pdf [Accessed on 26 January 2011].

Dobbin, J., (2010). EDM 1165. “That this House notes that the Government has made a commitment to decentralisation, which in the context of education means giving more responsibility to parents and governors, and that the sex and relationships education curriculum is already determined on a decentralised basis which should involve governors and parents; further notes the lack of a single source that details the diversity of approaches that are available so parents and governors can make informed decisions on developing an approach most in line with the ethos of their school; further notes the report of Ofsted in July 2010 which states that too few schools are actually consulting with parents; calls on the Government to address both these issues so that schools benefit from a functional decentralisation in sex and relationships education and work with the full spectrum of expert service providers in the field; and rejects all calls to determine sex and relationships education centrally through the national curriculum” (Early Day Motion 9 December 2010).

Giedd, J,N., 2009. Linking adolescent sleep, brain maturation, and behaviour. J Adolesc Health. 45(4):319-20. Dr J Giedd is chief of brain imaging in child psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health. His findings are described by Claudia Wallis “what makes teens tick?” Times, 26 September 2008.

Grossman, M (2009) You’re teaching my child what? Regnery Publishing, Washington DC.

Hansard, HC (series   ) Vol , cols. 25 (19 July 2010)

Lovewise, 2007. Growing up…growing wise. Available at: http://www.lovewise.org.uk/. [Accessed 26 January 2011]. CARE, Evaluate: informing choice. Available at: http://www.evaluate.org.uk/Groups/16649/evaluate_informing_choice.aspx. [Accessed 26 January 2011].

Maltz, W and Maltz, L. The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography. New York: Harper, 2008.

Muñoz, V, 2010., 2010. Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education. United Nations General Assembly. Available at <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/education/rapporteur/overview.htm> [Accessed on 27 January 2011]. The Family Watch International briefing make the point that as a Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education the 23 July 2010 report has grossly overstepped the mandate as outlined in Resolution 1998/33 of the Commission on Human Rights. The report was debated by the third committee of the UN General Assembly, 25 October 2010. This strong opposition on the floor of the UN sent the clear and very important message that there is no internationally recognized right to comprehensive sexuality education. The report was severely criticised by many member states. The African Group, The Arab Group, The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), Caricom (a group of Carribean member states), The Russian Federation and the Holy See were all very critical of it. The African Group and the OIC explicitly rejected the report and Caricom called for a new report to be issued in keeping with the mandate. The US while expressing support for the right to education agreed that there is no such international right as the right to comprehensive sexuality education.

Papadopoulos, L., 2010. Sexualisation of Young People Review. Online. Home office. Available at: <http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100418065544/http://homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/Sexualisation-of-young-people.html> [Accessed 26 January 2010].

Sex Education Forum, Briefing for Parliamentarians: Children, Schools and Families Bill, December 2009) and FPA, Sexual Health and the New Parliament, see ttp://www.fpa.org.uk/generalelection as at 25 November 2010 and Brook (Simon Blake, national director of sexual health charity Brook: Press Association National Newswire, 23 July 2010); NICE draft guidance for schools recommending that children as young as five should be given sex ed (Daily Mail, 17 June 2010); Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group, Teenage regnancy: Why We Need Sustained Action to Accelerate Reductions in Teenage Pregnancy, September 2009.

Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, Ref: DfEE 0116/2000, July 2000.

Telegraph view., 2010. A sexual disaster for teenagers and society. [Online] Available at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/7964538/A-sexual-disaster-for-teenagers-and-society.html> [Accessed 27 January 2010]

Wintour, P., 2010. David Cameron orders review into sexualised products for children. Guardian.co.uk. [Online]. 6 December 2010. Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/dec/06/david-cameron-review-sexualised-products-children>. [Accessed on 26 January 2011]. The new review will assess whether there should be a new watchdog modelled on the Advertising Standards Authority to police a code of conduct on age-appropriate marketing, including the possibility of having sexually explicit music videos shown after the nine o’clock watershed. Products such as high-heeled shoes for five year olds, playboy branded stationary sets and Lolita branded beds for six year olds are some of the mischief. The review is to be undertaken by Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of Mothers’ Union. This is the fifth government-led review since December 2008.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *