"Children as young as eight are having sex." When I read headline
in an Iowa paper recently I was shocked, a little suspicious, and curious. What was this assertion based on – a nationally representative survey or
anecdotal evidence from one school nurse? Were we going to watch the press
become fascinated with and over-inflate this story, just as they did few years
ago with the incidence of oral sex among middle schoolers-not untrue but certainly
not occurring in the epidemic proportions the incessant media coverage would
have us believe? And, did the eight-year-olds who said they were having sex
even know what they were really being asked?
It turns out that this claim was based on reliable research. Researchers analyzed data from almost 1,000
young people who had participated in the "Welfare, Children, and Families:
Three-City Study," which interviewed randomly selected families in low-income
communities in Boston, Chicago,
and San Antonio.
They wanted to determine what factors made young people more at risk for early
sexual behavior and what factors protected them from this risk.
However, eight-year-olds themselves were never actually
discussed in the journal
article. What the article does say
is that 26% of boys and 17% of girls in the Three
City Survey had sex before the age of 16, and that the average age at which
these participants first had sex was 12.77 (specifically 12.48 for boys and
13.16 for girls). If you remember how to
calculate averages from your fifth grade math class, you know that this does,
in fact, mean that some kids are having sex at eight, nine, or ten.
So with my suspicion set aside, that just left shock. No matter what side of the political spectrum
or the abstinence-only-until-marriage debate we fall on, or even how we feel
about pre-marital sex and sex among older teens, I am willing to bet that we
all agree that eight-year-olds should not be having sex. The problem is that while we agree that they
shouldn’t be having it, we do not seem to agree on whether they should be
learning about it.
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SIECUS has always believed that sexuality education is a
lifelong process of acquiring information and developing values and
beliefs. We believe that school-based
sexuality education is a very important piece of this (with other pieces coming
from parents, families, and faith-based communities). And, we believe that such education should
start early. Our Guidelines
for Comprehensive Sexuality Education includes messages for students in
kindergarten through 12th grade, and we have also developed Right
from the Start, a guidelines publication designed to help early
Though many of us remember that day when boys and girls were
separated and given "the talk" about puberty (mine came from Nurse Kleckner
who, no joke, told a room full of sixth grade girls that sex was better after
menopause), most often when adults think of sex education their minds jump
right to classes about STDs, pregnancy, and using condoms. What we have to remember and point out to
others is that there is a lot more to sexuality education. Messages for young students in the Guidelines include: "Everybody has to
make decisions," "Everyone, including children, have rights," "Family members
and friends usually try to help each other," "Each body part has a correct name
and a specific function," "Bodies change as children grow older," and "Children are not physically or
emotionally ready for sexual intercourse or other sexual behaviors."
These messages, which are designed to help young children understand
their bodies, relationships, and sex, lay the groundwork for healthy decision
making as kids get older.
Through our years of monitoring controversies over sexuality
education, we know, unfortunately, that the younger the intended audience the
more likely it is that there will be disagreements over what they should learn –
or whether they should learn about sex and sexuality at all. Over the years, we’ve heard many arguments,
all of which are variations of "They’re just too young to learn about that." My favorite was when physician was brought
into a Massachusetts school district by a national Far Right organization to
give a detailed explanation to the school board about why teaching seventh
graders about HIV impinges on their latency period.
While it’s unlikely we’ll hear too much more about Freud, we
will see more battles over elementary school sex education if for no other
reason than that the Far Right has pretty much realized it has lost the battle
in high school and maybe even in middle school.
If it’s going to peddle its fear-based rejection of sexuality education,
it has to focus on younger and younger kids.
And it already has. The
star of the right-wing group Parents for Truth’s video is a braces-clad,
pre-teen named Jen who does her best to look innocent and emotionally scarred
when she admits that the sex education class she sat through earlier in the day
told her it was okay to shower with a boy.
And remember that John McCain’s campaign thought one of the worst things
it could say about Barack Obama’s record on education was that he wants to
teach sex education to kindergartners. "Learning
about sex before learning to read?" the ominous voice of the narrator asks
rhetorically before ending, "Barack Obama, wrong on education, wrong for your
family." There is some irony in this
focus given that true comprehensive sexuality education in elementary school is
awfully rare – but these campaigns have never been about what is real, just what
The thing is, eight-year-old having sex is scarier. As the authors of this study point out "With
more than 30% of low-income boys in this study having sex before age 16 and an
average age of first sexual intercourse for all adolescents reporting sexual
activity of 12.8 years, interventions need to be implemented before middle
school." As a colleague of mine used to
say, "We have to make sure sex ed is never a history lesson."