A Year Three textbook is making headlines — for all the wrong reasons. Victim blaming, shaming and fear mongering seem to be at the core of the issue. But quite possibly, that’s only half the story.
Admittedly, writing comprehensively yet age-appropriately about sex education for 9-year- olds is no a small feat. The birds and the bees just won’t cut it any more these days.
Our children are far more (for lack of better) informed than we were at their age. They see things, they hear things. Through access to media and mostly the Internet, they gather all sorts of information, some that they won’t understand and much that promotes terrible role models.
This makes the necessity for sound and respectful education quite obvious. Judging from the outrage sparked by the Pendidikan Jasmani dan Kesihatan textbook, the publication clearly missed the tone and got the message wrong.
Concerned non-governmental organisations and furious parents rightfully claim victim blaming and unhealthy fear propagation among young girls. They also rightfully demand clarification about who’s to blame when sexual transgressions happen.
But the issue is far greater than just a page in a textbook. Sexual education needs to be linked to the teaching of self-worth and mutual respect. It needs to be rooted not only in the understanding of girls’ self-worth and boys’ respect for their female peers, but also vice-versa. Such education needs not to be gender specific, and it needs to start far earlier than elementary school.
Sexual education is only one part of a comprehensive social education, and therefore needs to first happen at home. Parents’ hands-off approach and the hope that a teacher will eventually give their children “the talk” instead will inevitably lead to misinformed youngsters who will try to get their questions answered in all the wrong places.
Children of both genders need to know the anatomy and the proper names of body parts. Just as we don’t make up funny names for their elbows or knees, we need to not name their private parts anything silly and droll. Private parts are not dirty or taboo, they are a part of our body and therefore deserve the same respectful attention as our ears or noses.
If children are to develop self-worth and respect for others’ worth, they need to be empowered in the understanding that they can choose not to be hugged or kissed if they don’t want to. They need to be taught that they can decide who touches their feet as much as any other part of their body.
Respect can only be taught to children by granting them that very same respect too. If a young child experiences respect from family members when he or she opts out of being touched or tickled, he or she will understand the concept of autonomy over one’s own body and will recognise that consent can be given or refused freely, by themselves as well as by others.
While the basics of social and therefore sexual education needs to begin at home, teachers and textbook writers are not off the hook, either.
Age-appropriate health and sex education still needs to happen at school too. Young children need to learn how to interact respectfully in a group, how not to build up or give in to peer pressure, how to accept that others have different boundaries then the ones they have learned in their own home.
Elementary children need to learn about anatomy and reproduction, in nature as well as in humans. Older students will be ready to hear about reproductive systems, hormones, and healthy versus unhealthy sexual as well as social relationships. They will need to be provided the tools to understand and critically analyse notions of beauty, partnerships and sexuality as portrayed in pop culture and the media.
As they will grow to become sexually active, they will need to learn about pregnancy, abstinence, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and adequate prevention.
There is plenty of work to be done, at school as well as at home.
Only if we manage to raise a new generation of people who will respect others as well as themselves, who will have the courage and the adequate language to inform a trusted other if they are abused, can we hope for a safer world in the future. A world where victim blaming and shaming have no place.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate