04.11.1990

Treating sex as child's play

Treating sex as child's play
 
HOW WOULD you feel if a person who was not a doctor or a respon­sible relative asked your son how big his penis was or your daughter whether she had started her periods? Most parents would be instantly suspi­cious of the motive for such questions, and would feel that nobody had the right to talk to a child in that way.
 
But a new guide to teaching sex in pri­mary schools, Knowing Me, Knowing You, argues that these are precisely the sort of questions that children should be asked. One must assume that the authors, Pete Saunders and Liz Swinden, are aware of public concern over child-abuse, and how important it is that children are not led to believe that adults talking graphically to them about sex is normal. Yet now they seek to introduce into the classroom worksheets containing such statements as: "Hair is starting to grow around the opening to my vagina"; "my penis is quite small"; "my penis and testicles are start­ing to grow".
 
This is an intolerable intrusion into the privacy of children, and an exploitation of their sexual nature which many would feel amounted to a form of child-abuse. Certainly, from the point of view of duress and the inability to complain, there are similarities.
In the notes for teachers about group discussion of menstruation, the authors emphasise that male teachers must not be excluded, since their attitude to the "emerging sexuality" of their pupils can be of "crucial importance". Here again, the response of many parents would be to wonder whether the isolating of some­thing called the "emerging sexuality" of their children was anything to do with teachers and whether, indeed, it was not rather an unhealthy interest for them to cultivate. Aren't teachers there just to instruct and educate their pupils in cer­tain subjects they are qualified to teach, including human biology, rather than to subject them to unqualified group therapy of a sexual nature?
 
The authors go on to say that at this sensitive period of a girl's life "an unhelp­ful or disparaging remark can do untold damage". Quite so. That is why menstrua­tion has been protected by a taboo that discouraged teasing.
 
The book is subtitled "strategies for sex education", and the principal strategy it advocates is encouragement of an egotis­tical, brooding preoccupation with sex. There is a whole section on "why people have sex" aimed at 10-year-olds; children are told to draw the outline of their bodies and indicate which parts they like, or do not like, being touched; the section on expressing attraction includes kissing, biting and licking. Another part, addressed to teachers, is headed "How was it for you?" which is, perhaps revealingly, a phrase with post-coital connota­tions which are quite worrying in this context.
 
Some of this crude sex therapy is wincingly disguised as familiar children's games; there is a positively ghoulish "Kim's Game" with sanitary towel, tam­pon, bra, jockstrap and shaving cream. A worksheet of dangerous things reminds one poignantly of the tender age of the children for whom it was intended, with a
dark wood, scissors, traffic and — a used condom.
 
It must be said that unreality is the most noticeable feature of this book. Not only does it make the complacent assumption, which we all know to be untrue, that teachers nowadays can "control the dis­cussion" in orderly classrooms; but it invents an earnest, bookish sort of child who will react with studious interest to a worksheet which tells both sexes how to masturbate, and asks them to "explore their knowledge" of the subject.
 
Bearing in mind that schools have been asked by the DES to be sensitive to strong parental feelings on this subject, it is hard to think of anything more likely to make Muslims determined to press for separate education for the children than the con­tent of this book. "For sexual penetration to take place, a condom has to be worn." Discuss with a partner. "I feel sexually attracted to another person", ditto; or "It is embarrassing for a girl to carry a con­dom" — as if embarrassment were the only consideration here.
 
Altogether it makes one wonder how any teacher could advocate such intimate and compromising material being forced on children in a classroom which may con­tain not only their best friends but also their worst enemies, and possibly the school bully too. Perhaps it is instructive that one of the authors is a headmaster and the other a health education adviser.
 
The one word I did not see mentioned in the entire book was "modesty" or its corollary — privacy. It is a concept these authors do not seem aware of; which is a pity, since children are as likely to need it now for their protection as they have done in the past. More so, in view of books like this.