In order to significantly decrease the rates of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal deaths, and sexually transmitted infections around the world, children should start receiving formal instruction about sexual health as early as age 10, according to a new study from Georgetown University researchers.
The researchers point out that kids’ sexuality and gender identity typically begin emerging during “very young adolescence,” defined as the period between the ages of 10 and 14. But although that’s the time when kids may first start experimenting with sexual behaviors, and will probably take unnecessary risks unless they’re taught how to practice safe sex, most sexual health programs aren’t tailored toward those ages — particularly in lower- and middle-income countries, where about 90 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion adolescents live.
The study authors recommend that sex ed programs should be refocused to target kids who are at the very beginning of puberty, when they’re most receptive to messages that could shape their future attitudes toward sex. “If programs…are implemented at a time when adolescents are still malleable and relatively free of sexual and reproductive health problems and gender role biases, very young adolescents can be guided safely through this life stage, supported by their parents, families and communities,” they write.
Victoria Jennings, the director of the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown, told the Chicago Tribune that the research provides some important takeaways for countries across the globe, including the United States. “The implications are so clear,” Jennings said. “Adolescents in all cultures and every social status are learning at 10, 11, 12 how to match up to gender roles and expectations for them.”
Indeed, here in the U.S., other researchers have warned that kids aren’t receiving accurate sexual health instruction at an early enough age. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most American teens don’t receive formal sexual health instruction until after they’ve already become sexually active. That’s largely because the United States hasn’t implemented any national standards for comprehensive sex ed classes in public schools. For instance, just 18 states and the District of Columbia require sexual health courses to cover information about birth control.
Instead of providing teens with medically accurate information about their bodies, many public school districts still rely on “abstinence-only” courses that tell kids having sex will make them dirty. Proponents of abstinence education typically argue that teaching adolescents about sex is inappropriate and will spur them to become sexually active at an earlier age. In fact, some states’ efforts to tailor sex education to younger kids has sparked accusations that the government wants to implement “kindergarten sex ed,” with the implication that this move will corrupt America’s youth.
That’s not exactly the right way to think about it, according to public health experts. There’s a wide range of evidence that kids who receive comprehensive sex ed in school are more likely to delay sex, as well as have a deeper understanding of issues related to sexual violence and consent. “If it’s done properly it has the opposite effect,” Jennings explained in reference to concerns that sex ed classes will encourage kids to experiment. “It has to be done in the context of helping them develop healthy self-esteem and the ability to negotiate their way in the world and develop expectations for themselves and their lives that will cause them to make decisions that will lead to positive outcomes.”