As our state and country experience continued disagreements on which books should be available to children, what topics should be discussed in schools and what curriculum should be taught, we share a deep concern that the trend of increased censorship will not keep children safer, but ultimately will lead to greater levels of violence. When we label topics as taboo, we remove the ability to have productive conversations, which prevents us from interrupting existing and, in some cases, escalating levels of sexual violence among teens.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about what many consider an uncomfortable topic. This year, we encourage South Carolinians to embrace the awkward conversations that will help end this type of violence in future generations.
The S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and others continue advocacy efforts for more comprehensive sexual education in our schools. But to truly make a safer South Carolina a reality, parents and guardians must be the driving force in both educating children about healthy relationships and sex, and pushing the education system, at all levels, to do more.
Contrary to popular belief, comprehensive sex education has very little to do with physical intimacy, it’s more about teaching kids critical life skills that are desperately needed in society.
Starting from a young age, kids need to understand bodily autonomy. People of all ages need to know that they are in charge of their own bodies. They get to choose who they hug (and don’t hug) and who they allow to touch them. Letting children make these decisions empowers them to say “no” to physical touch from any other person, no matter the relationship, both now and as they grow into teens and adults.
The most impactful way to teach these behaviors is to model them in how we interact with partners, friends, coworkers and our own children. Focus on positive, open communication, and show respect for others and their boundaries.
As kids get older and puberty begins, having a foundation of open communication makes it easier to have conversations about their changing bodies, the feelings they are experiencing and whether (or not) they act on these feelings. Research shows that teens who report having positive conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners and use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do have sex.
We all want our children to behave in ways that are consistent with our values and standards. If we tell them and show them, they will know.
On the contrary, if kids feel they can’t go to parents or guardians with questions, they will seek answers elsewhere, likely online or from friends. I think we can all agree that these are not the sources we want talking to our kids about values, relationships and sex.
Let’s ditch the idea of “The Talk” and instead embrace the idea that this is a lifelong conversation with our children, like homework or personal hygiene. It doesn’t have to be scary even if it feels awkward. Start when they are babies by labeling all of their body parts and talking about sharing. Learning to share, and accepting when others don’t want to, is a foundation for consent in adolescence. Multiple, short conversations when kids are open to receiving information is much more impactful than one, often traumatic, “lecture.”
By talking with kids early and often, we empower them to take control of their own bodies. We teach them they always have a choice, and that they get to make decisions when it comes to all forms of physical touch. Above all, we send the message that sex, sexuality and talking about it are not taboo, that they are, in fact, healthy parts of life and relationships.
We all want our kids to be safe. We also want them to have fulfilling sexual lives when they reach adulthood. These two things are possible. We just need to talk about it.
Sara Barber is the executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.