I can see how it may be hard to adjust to: your child—11 years old, full of energy, sweet and respectful—is about to take puberty education for the first time. Thinking back to your school days, you assume that in a few sessions, they’ll uncover the “mystery of menstruation”, talk about “where babies come from,” giggle about the word penis, and hear the word “sex” in the classroom for the first time.
But when the permission slip comes home you realize that much, much more will be discussed—this is not the puberty education of your youth. Per California’s new Healthy Youth Act, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and even HIV all have mandated slots on the schedule, and while you understand the importance of these topics, you can’t help but ask “isn’t my child a little young for this?” Can’t conversations about sexting, nude photos, coercion, lewd gestures, and forced touching, wait until middle school?
As someone who isn’t a stranger to the classroom, I can empathize wholeheartedly with these concerns and the desire to allow kids to “just be kids” a little longer. But our reality is different: one in four girls and one in six boys in the United States are sexually abused before they turn 18 years old —12.3% of assault survivors have not yet reached their 10th birthday . Unfortunately, only a small fraction of perpetrators are strangers to the victim and too often perpetrators are children themselves .
So while we may not be ready for our children to have these conversations, we as health educators believe that only through open and honest communication can we provide students the tools they need to identify power imbalances, seek out a trusted adult when something is wrong, and intervene on behalf of a friend.
In fact, a plethora of benefits can result from these in-class discussions. When trained health educators and students explore these topics together in age-appropriate ways, students: 1) understand what our law considers illegal and legal—giving weight to the issues and reinforcing notions that sexual abuse is unacceptable; 2) gain comfort in using language like “sexual assault” and “sexual harassment”, building knowledge that leads to self-confidence; 3) use activities to practice identifying abusive relationships and where they can seek help; 4) have a safe space to ask sensitive questions of a trained professional; 5) gain skills to be an “upstander”--learning to intervene when something is amiss; and 6) have a platform to report abuse for themselves or a friend—something that happens too rarely.
These are just a few positive outcomes that result from incorporating sexual assault and harassment into a puberty-level curriculum and the case is similar in middle and high schools. So why not wait until middle school? Because when we talk about it early and often, we can provide adolescents with the tools they need to draw healthy boundaries, take care of their bodies, and be an advocate for themselves and their friends—speaking up when they need to. These are critical skills that will serve them well not only during puberty—but for the rest of their lives.
1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2015). Statistics About Sexual Violence. Retrieved from http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
2. Department of Justice. (2016). Raising Awareness About Sexual Abuse, Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/FactsStatistics