scaring kids doesn’t stop them from having sex

You’d think that by now, I wouldn’t have to keep saying it. Well, ok, maybe not.  I can dream, can’t I?

An article came out in Macleans yesterday about Good For Her, a fabulous sex toy store in Toronto and the amazing non-profit agency that they just launched, The Sexual Health, Education and Pleasure Project. SHEPP’s mission is:

to provide free pleasure based sexual health education workshops to youth and other marginalized communities

So first off, I think that’s really amazing. There’s not a lot of room for sex education for youth from a pleasure perspective. I know a lot about this because I run Good Vibrations’ Off-Site Sex Education program, which offers workshops and in-service trainings to college classes, residential halls, and social groups, as well as non-profit agencies, bachelorette parties, and high school classes and youth groups. When we do presentations for minors (we don’t offer workshops for anyone under 14), we can’t show the toys. But we do great presentations on making safer sex fun, ways to experience pleasure without having intercourse, the physiology of pleasure, how to negotiate saf
er sex, and more. And it can be a very tricky thing to find the line between offering youth authentic and accurate information and scaring parents with what we’re telling their kids.

But I have to say that it’s incredibly important. It’s important because kids know that sex is important. They know this because a) it’s all over the place and b) adults refuse to talk about it openly and honestly. Instead, a lot of people listen to people like Dr. Miriam Grossman, who is quoted in the Macleans article. She’s the author of You’re Teaching My Child What?: A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child and she’s convinced that “[sex educators] must grow up, shed their 1960s mentality, and enter the 21st century. Then they must respond to this catastrophe by declaring war on teen sexual behaviour—yes, war, just as we’ve declared war on smoking, drinking, and trans fats.” Doesn’t that sound like a fun way to approach sex?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, here’s another quote from the Macleans article:

“People are going to discover on their own what feels good,” she says. In expending so much time “normalizing” everyone’s sexual proclivities, Grossman believes that sex educators are prioritizing the wrong kind of information, not to mention downplaying the emotional and psychological ramifications of casual sex. “I think a lot of fear is a good thing,” she says. “There are life and death infections involved here.”

So let me make sure that I understand this. She wants us to declare war on teen sex and increase the amount of fear that people feel around sexuality. And she thinks that this is going to somehow reduce how much sex kids are having.

What she’s missing is that while a certain amount of fear is useful, in that it helps us navigate dangers, an excess of fear is notorious for ensuring that we make bad decisions. I can think of several choices that I’ve made under the influence of fear that were, shall we say, less than optimal. And I’m willing to bet that you can do the same. So how is that going to help people have healthy sex lives?

Further, when we try to scare or shame people away from sex, all we do is create secrecy and when it comes to sex, secrecy is a great way to increase risk. When people of all ages, and especially youth, don’t have the skills or language to talk about sex in an open and authentic way, there’s much more likelihood of STIs, pregnancy, sexual assault, as well as unhappiness, unfulfilling sex and relationship dissatisfaction.

What we really need is sex education that talks about the pleasures and the dangers of sex. We need sex education that helps youth develop an awareness of their desires and the confidence to speak up for themselves in order to set boundaries. We need to provide support as youth begin to explore their sexual lives without either stifling them or forcing them to do anything before they’re ready. We need to help youth discover their authentic sexualities. SHEPP is trying to provide that. And Dr. Grossman simply isn’t.

One of the challenges that many adults face when trying to sort this all out is that we may not know where to start and it can seem overwhelming. So here are some good places to look:

Our Whole Lives is a sex-positive and comprehensive training program developed by the Unitarian-Universalist Association. There are curricula for kids, teens, youth and adults. They also offer facilitator trainings so you can learn how to teach the program. Anyone interested in offering sex ed will learn something from these amazing programs.

I’m also a big fan of Debra Haffner’s books:
From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children
Beyond the Big Talk: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens – From Middle School to High School and Beyond

I haven’t read this one, but quite a few parents I know have. Given that talking about sex can be challenging, this seems like another really useful resource:
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

I know that it’s tempting to look for an easy way out. But scaring youth simply isn’t the answer. Helping them develop the skills they need to take responsibility is a lot harder, but it’s infinitely more effective.

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