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How Teaching Kids To Accurately Identify Their Genitalia Can Help Prevent Sexual Crimes

By Tara Culp-Ressler  

"How Teaching Kids To Accurately Identify Their Genitalia Can Help Prevent Sexual Crimes"

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After Chicago’s public schools instituted age-appropriate sexual health instruction for every grade level, it inspired a significant amount of right-wing hysteria over so-called “kindergarten sex ed.” But even though the conservative media has construed sexual health as an “inappropriate” topic for children, that’s not what pediatricians and psychologists say. In fact, medical professionals and sex-abuse prevention educators are encouraging parents to teach their kids accurate information about their bodies, including the correct words to identify their genitalia, as an important method of teaching consent and preventing sexual crimes.

A recent Atlantic article profiled Kate Rohdenburg, a sexual violence prevention educator in New England, who speaks plainly to children about their anatomy as an important part of her work. When she interacts with children from kindergarten through 12th grade, she doesn’t use euphemisms to describe genitalia, as many parents do. Instead, Rohdenburg and her colleagues want to empower youth to identify their bodies accurately, partly so they will feel more comfortable talking about any issues of sexual abuse that may arise:

As part of the growing movement to implement abuse prevention in schools and other youth-serving organizations, Rohdenburg and other educators believe that teaching what linguists call “standard” dialect for body parts — rather than euphemisms and colloquialisms — is important. Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, says Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process. [...]

“We don’t want kids to think they’re going to get in trouble by asking questions about sexual matters and health,” Palumbo says. When officials pull a teacher into an investigation or escort a legislator from her state house floor for using the word “vagina,” or a parent removes a child from a class that uses the word “penis,” children are more likely to think their questions will get them in trouble, she says. This shuts down communication, reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.

Doctors agree that learning how to accurately describe anatomy helps kids more freely communicate their medical issues, because they won’t be too embarrassed to ask questions. “A child should view their entire body as healthy and there’s no particular part of their body that’s shameful,” Dr. Bob Sege, the director of Boston Medical Center’s division of family and child advocacy, told NBC’s TODAY.

Sege said that most of the parents he interacts with in his practice don’t use the accurate terms for their children’s genitalia, but they should start — partly because it sets an important example. “It communicates that the adults can hear about that part of the body, it’s not something you have to hide,” Sege pointed out. That, of course, becomes particularly important in cases where children need to communicate the details of sexual abuse.

Perhaps most importantly, teaching kids to use the accurate words for their body parts teaches them that they have ownership over their body, provides a positive boost to their self-image, and increases their confidence. That could have radical implications for our current society’s pervasive rape culture, which advances the false perception that sexual assault is merely a consequence of promiscuity rather than a serious crime. If youth grow up with a deeper understanding of bodily autonomy and consent, they will be more likely to speak up when they feel that consent has been violated — and perhaps less likely to violate someone else’s consent.

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