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Q&A with Vanessa Hamilton

Women's Health Week 8 Sep 2021
Mum and daughter

When should I start talking to my kids about sex? Should I teach my kids the names of their ‘private parts’? How do I teach my kids about consent..?

You asked, and leading sexuality educator Vanessa Hamilton answered.

Here are the answers to your top questions on sex and sexuality.

Use the + symbol to read the full answers to the questions below.

Should primary schools teach Sex Ed?

Yes they should teach this education. But it should be ‘sexuality’ education, not ‘sex’ education.

Human sexuality is part of being human, relevant from birth to death. It has hardly anything to do with what most people think of when they hear the word ‘sex’ (which is often being male or female and penis-in-vagina heterosexual intercourse).

We know that learning about human sexuality keeps children healthy and safe, i.e., when they know about the correct names of all their body parts, protective safety, puberty, consent, respectful relationships and the amazing, wonderful story of human reproduction.

Typical childhood sexual development and behaviour exists as part of being human. Adults should expect this behaviour and development, respond positively, and empower children with the knowledge about this aspect of being human.

When should I start talking to my kids about sex?

You should teach them about human sexuality when they are babies/toddlers. Teaching kids about human sexuality has hardly anything to do with teaching about ‘sex’.

Sex is an unhelpful word; it means so many different things to different people. It’s especially problematic when used to describe education for children. Because ‘sex’ is not for children, but human sexuality is.

It’s part of being human and we can’t just ignore or leave out this aspect of being human. Children are getting a sex and sexuality education from the world around them every day; just not the one that we want them to receive or one that keeps them healthy and safe.

The question parents need to ask themselves about when they should teach them is: who do you want to be the main person who teaches your child about each topic of sex and sexuality? Hopefully the answer is you, and then, when do you need to get in first before they hear it from someone, or somewhere else?

Children do not lose their innocence when they learn about human sexuality; that concept implies that learning about this aspect of being human is dirty, shameful, wrong or taboo, which it is not. On the contrary, they will lose their innocence if something happens to them that they didn't know about or want to happen or didn't have the information to manage. Learning the names of all body parts without shame or fear is a perfect example of this.

Should I teach my kids the names of their ‘private parts’?

Absolutely – after all, they are just body parts. Not naming them can imply shame or a taboo about them.

Fears about all things to do with ‘sex’ often prevents parents from addressing even the most basic of sexuality safety and wellbeing education for their children, i.e., one of the most important [teachings] is correctly naming sexual and reproductive body parts.

Experts agree that we should name all body parts – the private and the public ones – when teaching children about their bodies. In the bath or during nappy change, when you are teaching elbow, nose, eyes and feet, be sure to name vulva, vagina, penis and scrotum. Name all parts using the same/neutral tone. Also start early with explaining to babies why you are touching their private parts. It can be as simple as “...I’m cleaning your vulva/penis/bottom to keep you healthy”.

Research consistently shows that children who have accurate, age-appropriate human sexuality information from an early age have better outcomes later in life, i.e., they have less unintended pregnancies, less STIs and delay first intercourse to a later age. Perhaps the two most important benefits that education gives them is that: 1. They are less vulnerable to abuse and, 2. Have a vocabulary to talk to an adult about body parts and changes if something is wrong.

Some parents hesitate to use accurate anatomical names for many reasons, some parents might worry that children will repeat the words at childcare or say them out loud in public. Yes, this may happen, but it is better that they are saying accurate body part names rather than inaccuracies.

Words such as ‘vulva’ and ‘penis’ may be difficult for adults to say or to hear, especially when spoken by a young child, but those difficulties are our ‘adult’ issues, and we cannot allow our discomfort to come before the essential education and safety of our children. It is fine to have ‘family’ or ‘home’ names for private parts (such as fanny or willy,) but it is also important that children know the correct names or ‘scientific’ names for their sexual anatomy.

There are plenty of great storybooks around for parents to use as props to help them have lots of little conversations that normalises and celebrates bodies and keeps kids safe, positive and healthy.

How do I teach my kids about consent?

Teaching consent is about teaching permission, respect and empathy. Teach children that consent needs to be enthusiastic and ongoing for all shared experiences.

Talking about consent to kids has nothing to do with talking about sex. It is surprisingly simple to explain the complexities of consent to kids so that they learn the fundamental principles of decision making. These decisions will inform all the actions they decide to take in their life during shared experiences, which will include sexual experiences when they are older.

Teaching consent is teaching [concepts such as] mutuality, reciprocity, generosity, empathy, respect, permission, pleasure and fun – just to name a few.

These fundamental internalised ideals will benefit their decisions as they embark on intimate encounters later in life.

Here is an example: "It’s not nice, or fun, for one person to force another to hold hands with you when they don’t want to, is it?"

Should same-sex relationships be included in Sex Ed?

Yes. Same-sex relationships should be included in sexuality education because sexuality education is about being human and humans experience a diversity of sexuality, including sexual orientation.

There are many reasons for this, but most importantly it is to normalise humans’ unique and diverse lived experiences. Leaving [same-sex relationships out of sexuality education] erases these experiences. For example, families come in all shapes and sizes and that includes same-gender relationships. Also, it is typical and expected for humans to develop a sense of attraction to others when they are children.

In one study, the majority of same-gender attracted (i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual) adult participants said it was during childhood that they recall realising they were not opposite-gender attracted (straight). Opposite-gender attracted children (heterosexual) and same-gender attracted children (i.e., homosexual) probably realise their sexual orientation at around the same ages. However, the 'straight' children may not have been as conscious of it, because it was seen as 'normal' in society. The eight-year-old girl who wants to marry a [male] pop star is an example of this, or the five year-old boy who has a 'girlfriend' in his class is another example.

Sex is not for children; children do not experience sexual desire or intent. But they do have an emotional/romantic idea of their sexuality/sexual attraction, even in childhood, regardless of same or opposite-gender attraction.

Our children form their beliefs from the world around them – what they hear, see and talk about, and from the stories, people and experiences that are an integral part of their childhood.

Human sexuality is part of being human and we should learn about all of the diverse aspects of being human.

We know that it keeps them healthy and safe.

Vanessa hamilton
About Vanessa Hamilton

Vanessa Hamilton is a sexuality educator and mum of three kids, with 25 years’ experience as a sexual health nurse. She’s the founder of Talking The Talk, providing sexuality education to parents, teachers, students and health professionals.