The fear of sex education

Onika Henry  -
Onika Henry -


Has anyone heard about continuing comprehensive sexuality education in our virtual classrooms now that “school at home” is the norm? Maybe you have heard that the education system will be teaching “porn literacy” as part of sexuality education, especially now that our youth will be online most of the day and surely will be coming across or seeking out sexuality explicit material more than usual? Or maybe you have heard that they have upgraded the skills of Health and Family Life Education teachers who are delivering sex education lessons, so that they can make it more suitable to online learning? No? You haven’t heard anything like this? Neither me. I guess this means that we still do not see this topic as an essential need for overall health and well-being. And most likely, the debate is still raging about teaching sex ed in schools.

On one side of the divide of the sex education debate, we have data – quantitative and qualitative, case studies, analyses, theories and findings, and on the other side we have fear. The psychologists, the psychiatrists, the biologists, the counsellors, the sex educators and all of the other related professionals, who have loaned their intellects to the study of human sexuality, have given tirelessly of their time in an attempt to understand the field. Yet we still find ourselves paralysed by the most basic of human emotions, fear, when it comes to understanding the most basic of human functions – our sexuality.

In recent years, I have come to realise that parents aren’t really the problem when it comes to resistance against sex education. I have been invited to many PTA meetings, both at secondary level and primary school level, to speak to parents, guardians, school staff and other stakeholders in our education system. After my presentations and Q&A Sessions, none of those schools I have visited were opposed to comprehensive sex education, and even asked why has the Government delayed implementing sex ed. It seems to me that the groups whose actions epitomise the fear that I speak of above are religious leaders and government officials. The reactions of these two groups are filled with doom and gloom and slippery slope arguments, founded with little basis in fact. From my experience, there are three basic fears I’ve noticed that seem to continually fuel this.

The first is the belief that teaching children about sex, will cause children to become promiscuous. The second, is that sex education includes topics that will lead children to become sexually permissive. And third, sex education exposes children to information too early in their development.

So let’s address the first fear.

Studies since the 1990s have proven consistently, that comprehensive sexuality education does not cause children to become sexually indiscriminate or unrestrained. But before I go further, let me break down this fear into its components. The promiscuity spoken about includes the belief that children will become sexual at an earlier age, that more children will become sexually active and that they will also have more sexual partners. The fact is, absolutely none of this is true. In fact, what happens is that the behavioural outcome of the children were significantly positive. Children who receive comprehensive sex education, delay the initiation of sex, reduce the number of new sex partners, decrease the frequency of sex, and increase the use of condoms and contraception, thereby decreasing the number of teenage pregnancies and STIs.

The second fear is deeply rooted in the discomfort and non-acceptance of certain sexual realities. Usually, this comes from religious teachings, that define what healthy and proper sexual behaviour looks like. Parents are afraid that open and honest discussions about sex, will lead to greater comfort with topics like sexual orientation, abortion, masturbation and others, and if children are more comfortable with these topics, then they will become more inclined to tolerate, accept and even indulge in what is considered to be sinful or shameful.

The fact is, sex education does teach children to be more open-minded about these controversial topics; it teaches them to understand and accept that these issues represent basic truths. But being open-minded is not the same as being permissive. It does not promote the indulgence in any particular behaviour, nor does it encourage children to try out behaviours that parents may not approve of. The open-mindedness which I speak of, is about teaching children to accept and extend the same basic human rights to those who may not think like them. It is about empathy, and respect for all people irrespective of their sexual orientation or sexual practices. It is about not bullying, not dehumanising and not causing mental and emotional harm to other human beings. And yes, we teach about caring, sharing, liking and loving in comprehensive sex ed.

The last fear I shared, is really about the destruction or interruption of innocence. Parents want their children to be as innocent and as carefree as possible, for as long as possible. They believe that talking about sex is only for adults. They think that exposing children to facts about sex and gender, will cause them to change how they see their bodies and that of others and by extension, change their behaviour to act more like adults. Actually, sexuality education does not work like that. As with any other subject, children are not given all the information at once and they are certainly not given information that is inappropriate for their age, or beyond their capacity to understand. They learn what is required to keep them safe and healthy at every stage of development.

The bottom line is that the fear of sex education should not be the basis for our decision to reject its inclusion in the schools’ curriculum, even or perhaps especially now, with our education system being in such an unstable state because of covid19 restrictions, because many youth are roaming cyber space in another browser tab, while muting the teacher in the virtual classroom (unless parents are tied to each of their children every time they are online?). The bottom line is, that our primary motivation should be to ensure that our children have the knowledge and skills to treat with that part of themselves, that is an inescapable aspect of their well-being: their sexuality and sexual health.

Onika Henry is a Tobago-based, trained sex dducator (MEd Human Sexuality) and a certified sex coach. She designs and implements workshops, training, and psycho-educational counselling, to address sexual health concerns.


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