Desire and Sexuality are a Children’s Rights Issue, too.
When talking about sex and sexuality, children and young people are often viewed as non-sexual beings who do not experience desires and needs. This viewpoint informs many policies and programmes leading to less than effective outcomes for children and young people.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation in its document, Exclaim! Young People’s Guide to ‘Sexual Rights: An IPPF Declaration, states that “sexual rights” for youth must be guaranteed, so that “all young people around the world [will] be able to explore, experience and express their sexualities in healthy, positive, pleasurable and safe ways.” It also emphasizes that “sexuality and sexual pleasure are important parts of being human for everyone – no matter what age, no matter if you’re married or not and no matter if you want to have children or not.”
The reality is, in a country like Malaysia, we are a long way from embracing these rights for young people. The conversation about the need for sexuality education for children and youth has been on-going for close to two decades. Various factors, such as values, religious and cultural beliefs, a lack of understanding and knowledge about childrens’ sexuality, to name a few, influence peoples’ perceptions and ideas about sexuality education for children and young people.
In Malaysia, where there are attempts to bring in sexuality education, the syllabus tends to focus only on teaching children about protective behaviours in the hope that they will not be a victim of child sexual abuse. Besides that, it also imposes abstinence as the only option for young people by placing emphasis on the dangers of unprotected sex such as teen pregnancies, STIs and HIV. Information and knowledge about the right to a healthy and pleasurable sexual relationship is never provided.
One of the main reasons for this is the fear and suspicions that adults have of the possible outcomes of providing children with sexuality education. People who oppose the provision of comprehensive sexuality education for children and youth often cite the fear that exposure to sexuality education will bring about increased curiosity about all things sexual, leading to experimentation and eventually resulting in uncontrolled promiscuity. Many of these fears are not evidence-based.
The fact is, young people are sexual beings who are very curious and have a lot of questions. If we do not acknowledge these aspects of their personhood and deny their right to access information, we are then pushing them towards other sources of information which may not be accurate and could even be harmful. We need to shift our mindsets from the current framework of fear-mongering towards one that also acknowledges the reality that sex is also a pleasurable experience.
Countries that have adopted a more open and positive approach to sexuality education have shown to have better health outcomes. Sue Greig, a consultant in public health at NHS Sheffield, said that in countries where there is more openness about sex, such as the Netherlands, young people wait longer than British teenagers before having their first experience. Levels of teenage pregnancy are also significantly lower in the Netherlands than in the UK, which has the highest rate in Western Europe.
According to Ferguson, Vanwesenbeeck and Knijn (2008), “Dutch sexuality education emerges from an understanding that young people are anxious about sex and sexuality and that they need, want and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information about sexual health… it encourages young people to think critically about their sexual health including their desires and wishes…attention is paid to discussing values, establishing personal boundaries, communicating wishes and desires, and developing assertiveness.”
So, when we talk about comprehensive sexuality education, we are talking about:
- Educating children and young people to appreciate, enjoy and accept their own bodies,
- Building their self-esteem,
- Ensuring that they are emotionally ready for sexual relationships,
- Learning how to manage and resist peer pressure,
- Learning about their sexual reproductive health,
- Learning how to enjoy sexual feelings without necessarily acting on them if they are not ready,
- Negotiate sexual activity by talking with their partner about sexual activity before it takes places,
- Discussing personal boundaries of both their partner’s and theirs’; and
- Practising safe sex when they feel they are ready.
Teaching children and young people about sex and sexuality using a positive approach does not encourage blind experimentation. Instead it empowers them to make informed and safer choices so that when they do engage in a sexual relationship, they will be able to enjoy the experience without fear. So, how do we talk to children and youth about sex and sexuality in a meaningful way?
To begin with, as adults, we need to encourage ourselves and others to discuss and unpack the way that we currently think about and deal with young people’s sexuality. We must recognise the evolving capacities of children and young people. In the document, “Exclaim! Young People’s Guide to ‘Sexual Rights: An IPPF declaration’”, it is stated that,
“All people under 18 years should enjoy the full range of human rights, including sexual rights. The importance and relevance of some rights change as a person transitions from infancy to childhood to adolescence. Therefore, the rights of children and youth must be approached in a progressive and dynamic way. The rights and protection of young people under the age of 18 differ from those of adults. Particular attention must be given to these differences in relation to sexual rights. The evolving capacity of young people to make decisions about their health and well-being must be recognized, while also ensuring appropriate protection of their best interests”.
This is a very important guiding principle as we move towards providing children and young people the space and access to fully embrace their sexualities. This guiding principle will also help address fears and concerns than children are too young to be exposed to sex and sexuality issues. The truth is, children and young people live and experience their sexualities differently at different times of their lives. Hence the importance of age-appropriate sexuality education. As adults, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about these things so that we are able to support and empower them in a way that truly embodies the spirit of the best interest of the child.
To conclude, one of the most important ingredients in approaching sex and sexuality in a positive way is to be honest. We tend to only focus on the dangers of sexual activities and relationships without acknowledging that sexual relationships and activities can also be positive experiences with pleasurable feelings. It is important that adults acknowledge that these feelings are a normal part of growing up and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Silencing or invalidating the questions and experiences of children and young people about sex and sexuality can lead to situations that negatively impact their self-esteem, their sense of what is acceptable or not, eventually rendering them vulnerable to misinformation and exploitation.
We owe it to children and young people to ensure that they grow up with empowering understanding and ideas around sexuality and sexual pleasure.
* * * * *
About the Author
Constantly seeking, questioning and exploring. Everyday is a journey of unlearning and learning new ways to just BE. Tired of adults who refuse to do the right thing by children. In an ideal world, I'd spend all my time exploring languages, people and cultures. In this world, I am working towards creating safer environments for children and young people to truly be themselves without fear of repercussions.
 Rebecca M. Ferguson, Ine Vanwesenbeeck and T. Knijn (2008). ‘A matter of facts ... and more: An exploratory analysis of the content of sexuality education in The Netherlands’, Sex Education 8(1):93-106 · February 2008