What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex
The Wall of Sexualized Messages
Sexual images and messages are everywhere these days. In your average day, how long is it before you are exposed to some sort of sexualized message? Television, music, billboards, print media, Internet, telephone and communication devices, cable, movies—there are just so many mediums through which sex and sexuality can be depicted.
I’m fifty-eight, and I still cannot get over how many explicit depictions of sexuality there are all around us today. I remember when I was fourteen, thinking I had died and gone to heaven when I found aPlayboy magazine. But for some young people now, a Playboy magazine is a fairly mild form of stimulation, like National Geographic, with its depictions of naked people from tribal cultures, was for me when I was a boy: it’ll get your attention, but not for very long. Now kids can see actual sexual intercourse as often as they want just by turning on the computer. In homes where kids have unsupervised, unfiltered Internet access, a world of outrageous sex is only a few clicks away. In fact, they can see sexual intercourse in all its possible permutations, everything from your run-of-the-mill sexual intercourse to the weirdest, sickest, most deviant sex acts. Even in homes that have computer Internet filters, many kids can find ways around them or turn to other devices to access the Internet. And if it’s not the Internet, then perhaps it’s cable television or pay per view. There’s plenty of sex to be had there. Although perhaps not as outrageous as the Internet, cable does provide a wide array of explicit sexual messages. Then there’s your child’s mobile phone that can be used for sending and receiving naked pictures of him and his friends, and social networking sites that may be offering any number of provocative images and messages.
Even if your child is only four or five years of age, you need to ask yourself just how much she is being influenced by the television that she’s watching. She may not understand the sexual content she sees, but, believe me, she is absorbing it. And once she starts school there is no doubt that she will be influenced by other children she encounters there.
As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up sexual content via any number of electronic and communicative devices. Besides these devices, there are many additional sources of sexualized messages that young kids can be exposed to today. Music offers an interesting array of sexualized possibilities as pop stars sing about sexual relationships and hookups, intermingled with hurtful and demeaning lyrics about women. Combined with video, they offer an extremely compelling genre that can overwhelm the senses with stimulating messages about sex, sexuality, and gender. Print media, including magazines, books, newspapers, and advertisements of all kinds, certainly offer any number of possibilities for exposure to sexual matters. And of course interactions with peers offer even more.
Our children have countless opportunities for exposure to sexual messages every day of their lives. Think about that—constant exposure to sexualized messages, day in and day out, at lightning speed from nearly every direction, for their entire childhood. This exposure often occurs without the guidance and intervention from parents and care-givers that is necessary to help children sort through and make sense of it all. These messages are not only explicit but are also frequently violent in nature, awash in male dominant and female submissive imagery—misogynistic, heterosexist, and sensational. Make no mistake about it; your child will be exposed to an enormous amount of sex-related content no matter how hard you try to shield them from it.
Our society is creating a hypersexualized generation of kids. Children today are more likely to confront sexual stimuli on an earlier and more frequent basis than any prior generation of children. Consequently, they are more at risk for thinking and acting in a sexual manner before they are emotionally and developmentally ready.
Block by Block, Building the Wall of Sex
To help you appreciate what our children are up against, I’ve come up with a simple illustration. Visualize your child sitting at a table. On the floor around her are thousands of one-inch square blocks. Each block represents some sort of sexualized message. Perhaps it’s something sexual that she hears from a friend, some sexual image or content from TV, or sexual lyrics in a song. It could be any type of message that has some sexual reference, whether it is fairly innocent and benign or explicit and incomprehensible. But every block represents some sexual message your daughter or son could encounter on any given day.
The first time your child is exposed to one of these sexualized messages, a block is placed on the table in front of her. With her second exposure to a sexualized message, another block is placed on the table next to the first block. With the third exposure a block is placed next to the second, and so on, until the row is, let’s say, eighteen inches long. With the next exposure, a block is placed on top of the first block in the first row. This continues with each exposure to a sexualized message. With eighteen more blocks in place, a third row begins. A wall of blocks starts to form.
Got the picture? Now imagine how high the wall would be after just one day. How many sexualized messages—blocks—would be on the table in front of your child? Obviously, the older your child, the higher the wall is likely to be, simply because we would expect an older child to have more varied experiences and hence more exposures to sexual messages. So how high would you expect the wall to be after a week? How about a month? Six months? A year? Ten years? If I were a betting man, I’d say that the top of the wall of sexualized messages facing your child extends way up into the sky, well out of our sight. So think about this: by the time your child begins to enter puberty, he or she has probably been exposed to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of sexualized messages. And how many of these sexualized messages will be problematic and conflict with your values system? How many of them will portray women as sexual objects and men as hunters, lusting for sex? How many of them will be heterosexist and homophobic? How many of them will portray sexual intimacy and behavior without any sense of responsibility or consequences? How many of them will portray sex as something we can all engage in without having to be in love? How many of them are incomprehensible and just outright confusing to your young child? How many of them come from sources that you would have a problem with?
A Closer Look at the Wall
All this sends a little shiver down your spine, right? And what will that wall of sexualized messages look like after your child has entered puberty and his or her sexual feelings and desires start being actualized, and peers begin to have more influence on your child than ever before? How high will it be then? And there your child sits, with a gigantic wall of sexualized messages staring her or him in the face. Our job as parents is to help our children make sense of that wall.
Now, how many of the blocks in that wall are yours or your partner’s? Have your messages about sex even come close to countering all those that were harmful to your child? If you don’t take it upon yourself to become the most influential source of sexual guidance for your children, their friends and peers or the media are very willing and capable of doing it for you. Do you want most of the blocks in your child’s wall of sexualized messages to come from the media and your child’s peers, or from you?
We know just how powerful the media and our children’s peers can be in informing and influencing them about sex and sexuality. Study after study consistently tells us that peers and the media are at the top of the list of influential sources of sexual information.1
Sexual Messages from You
But let’s start first with you, the parent. Exactly what sort of sexual messages do you send to your child? How many of your blocks in the wall are messages that have had a positive influence on your child? How many have been a negative influence and have only added to your child’s confusion and misunderstanding? Do you tell your little boy to be strong, suck it up when it hurts, and be tough? Do you buy your daughter low-cut tops and short skirts, and let her wear makeup at the age of nine? Are you the parent who wants to be friends with your child, tends to avoid confrontation, and has difficulty setting boundaries and saying no?
Your Silence Speaks Volumes
During a recent presentation for parents at a school, a parent of a nine-year-old told me that her boy’s best friend had an iPad and would frequently go to very explicit websites and show her son the images he found there. She said she had overheard her son talking about it and had gone to him to discuss it. He had replied that he thought it was disgusting but no big deal. She asked me, in front of about a hundred other parents, “So, what should I do? Should I let him do this or should I say something?”
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “There is no way you should be letting this happen. Go to the other boy’s parents and state your concern. If they don’t agree with you, you shouldn’t allow your son to see that boy anymore. You then need to help your child make sense of the explicit sexual material he was looking at.”
Her response was, “But I don’t want to end his friendship. He would be so upset.”
On the one hand, I can understand her response. No parent wants to disappoint her child by possibly ending a friendship. Obviously, she needs to reason with the parents of her son’s friend and try to get them to understand the seriousness of the situation: nine-year-olds should not be viewing sexually explicit material. My guess is they would agree and intervene with their child appropriately. But, should they resist her wishes, she may have to endure the possible pain of having to tell her child that he can no longer see his friend. As difficult as this may be, it pales in comparison to the risks involved in allowing one’s nine-year-old son to view sexually explicit material.
We continued to have some more back and forth, this parent and I. Other parents chimed in and the prevailing consensus was that this parent needed to confront her son’s friend’s parents—remaining silent would not work. She agreed, and hopefully she was able to work things out. Based on what this parent told me during the presentation, let’s take a look at the various messages that were added to her son’s sexualized wall. We know for sure that her nine-year-old son has been exposed, probably a number of times, to highly explicit sexual behavior. We know that he knows his mother is aware of it and to date has not taken a stand. So a number of harmful blocks have been added to his wall. The boy now has to deal with the highly sexualized images on his own and has to make sense of why his mom hasn’t really taken any action.
Being exposed to highly sexualized images can have an immense impact on a young child without the intervening help of an empathetic adult. I will have much more to say on this topic later in the book. For now, we can only hope that his mom will offset the negative effects of these blocks by intervening. I would hope that she would tell her son that he doesn’t need to see people having sex, that sexual videos usually do not offer an accurate portrayal of adult sexuality, that she will talk to his friend’s mom and ask her to stop his friend from viewing and showing off the sexually explicit sites, that she is always available to talk about what he’s seen on the iPad, and that she’s taking this action because she loves him.
The Effects of the Wall: A Hypersexualized Generation of Children
When I say that we are creating a hypersexualized generation of children, I mean that a significant number of children are actually demonstrating sexual interest and/or behavior at earlier ages than ever before in our society. Growing up in the United States today, kids are being exposed to sexual matters that were previously only in the purview of adults. The greater the exposure to children, the greater the consequences can be. When parents fail to counter and buffer the plethora of sexual stimuli that build a child’s wall of sexualized messages, children are then left to their own devices to manage what they experience. When children are exposed to explicit sexual behavior, some of which may be incomprehensible to them, we can expect several things to occur. At the very least many will be confused; they will have difficulty making sense of and putting into proper perspective what they are exposed to. Some will actually try to act out or mimic what they have seen. Others, who may be already developing an intrusive or bullying persona, will begin to incorporate sexual behavior into their bullying behavior.
The biggest impact of hypersexualization is its overall looming effect on the day-to-day existence of kids. Sexuality becomes much more of a player than it should, irrespective of the child’s age:
- The five-year-old learns to use the word sexwithout having any clue what it means.
- Some of his peers his age become overly curious and actually touch each other’s genitals as opposed to just looking (as in “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”). (Children have a very normal curiosity about basic sex differences and similarities between genders. They don’t typically extend that curiosity to actual touching of the genitals.)
- The eight-year-old asks questions about dildos and wants to know how a man can become a woman.
- The ten-year-old asks about rimming (licking a sex partner’s anus) and is already close to being sexually active.
Our children’s lives are becoming saturated with sexual images and innuendos. Seven-year-old girls are dressed by their parents in skimpy skirts, spaghetti-strap tops, and makeup. Little boys learn dance steps with thrusting and grinding movements intended for the bedroom. School attire guidelines allow plunging necklines and bare midriffs for girls, and for the boys there’s nothing like showing their underwear with low-hanging pants.
I have been inundated the past ten years with so many cases of sexualized behavior among elementary school children that at times it felt as though my head was spinning—kids five, six, seven, or eight years of age touching genitals, forcing other kids to do things that are sexual, or lying on top of each other, humping. Young kids have made sexual comments such as “I’m gonna sex you,” “Let’s play the sex game,” and “Kiss my privates.” You can ask any elementary school teacher who has been working with kids for any length of time, and I guarantee that he or she will tell you that there is more sexually related behavior and talk among students than ever before. Reading this right now, you may be thinking the same thing. You’re saying to yourself that you’ve seen this kind of thing as well, or that you have a child who has experienced something similar.
Just fifteen or twenty years ago we saw this sort of behavior far more infrequently than we’re seeing it now. We would have the occasional young student who would act out sexually, or we would see this behavior in kids who had been sexually abused. Now we are also seeing it in children who have been exposed to sexually explicit or incomprehensible sexual stimuli.
Let’s think about the child whose wall of sexualized messages is constructed from numerous exposures to sexually explicit stimuli that he or she cannot comprehend. If this child’s parents or guardians don’t take enough time to talk with the child about sex and sexuality, and they do not adequately intervene when they know their child has been exposed (like the mother of the nine-year-old and the iPad), then it becomes increasingly likely that the child will begin to display some sort of problematic sexual behavior. This child might develop a preoccupation with sexual matters or themes, engage in repeated sexually explicit discussions with peers, or start to expose his or her genitals to others or attempt to view the genitals of others. Or perhaps this child will attempt to touch other children’s genitals, or become sexually intrusive toward other children. These are just some of the concerns we have about a child who is confronted with excessively explicit and incomprehensible sexual messages. I will elaborate on these sorts of sexualized problems much more extensively in chapter 3.
Schools Offer Little Help
No other generation of children has been confronted with an overload of sexual stimuli of the scope and scale that we see today. As I said earlier, our society is both sex saturated and sex stupid. We apparently can’t get enough sex in our daily lives, yet at the same time we spend countless hours debating whether or not children and adolescents should be taught sex education in our schools or by any source other than their parents. Think about this contradiction for a moment. Children are being exposed, day in and day out, to some incredibly wacky and bizarre sexual images and content, and are then passing this information on to other children, yet many parents are worried that school sex education will somehow contaminate their innocent minds with dangerous sexual information. Huh? What am I missing here? These parents argue that they want to be the ones to teach their child about sex and sexuality, and that they will be the ones to decide when it should be done. This would be fine, except a majority of parents profess to have considerable difficulty communicating with their children about sex and sexuality.2 About one-third of us fear that talking to our kids about sex will cause them to have sex, another third feel uncomfortable, and the remaining third would prefer that others do the teaching for us. So many of us are really not doing what we claim we want to do—and we are leaving our children at the mercy of sexual misinformation.
Most parents actually want schools to teach sex education, but there’s confusion over exactly what to teach and what values should be espoused. Nevertheless, most school districts in the country say they teach some form of sex education, although I would suggest it is usually at the high school level, with far less involvement at the middle and elementary school levels. Even when a school district says all of its schools teach sex education, it may not be comprehensive enough to have any meaningful, positive effect on young people’s behavior. At the elementary school level, I would argue that the sex education programs are even less comprehensive. This represents perhaps the greatest tragedy because it is during elementary school that we can usually have the greatest effect on establishing positive behaviors. Even though study after study shows that a majority of parents in America support public school sex education, very few school districts can honestly say that their elementary school sex education is at the level necessary to positively affect the sexual behavior of its students.3 I emphasize the word honestly because I know from firsthand experience how easy it is for a school district to inflate its positive numbers pertaining to sex or health education when surveyed by state government. A school district can report that it teaches sex education or health education when in reality it either doesn’t come close to the scope and sequence that would make it worthy, or it offers it only in its secondary schools and not at the elementary level.
Of course, the great irony is that all schools have unofficial sex education programs, ones that are run by the students themselves during lunch period, during recess, in the school’s bathrooms, and in the hallways during the changing of classes. Spend some time at a school and see for yourself the exchange of sexuality among its students. Students chatter about sex, text about sex, and sometimes actually engage in sex at school. Don’t be shocked by what I say here. Schools offer an array of opportunities for students to express their sexuality. Far too many kids express sexual behaviors while at school. We know that a considerable amount of these behaviors are of an unwanted or hurtful nature, as is the case with forms of sexual harassment and misconduct.4 But I also know firsthand that there are kids who will willingly engage in sexual behavior with each other in the more remote or private areas within a school building. Either way, it should be disturbing to all that any sort of sexual behavior occurs in schools.
So we have a public school system that leaves much to be desired when it comes to sex education and consequently does little to offset the sexual content our young people are exposed to. It could even be argued that the school system sometimes contributes to the problem by not doing enough to minimize sexual behaviors that occur in schools. Our community-based organizations, some of which actually do offer some effective sex education programs, do not reach enough of an audience, and our religious institutions for the most part do not offer sex education on a scale that could have any impact. So that leaves us parents to provide sex education to our children. As I said previously, of all the possible influential sources of sexual guidance for young people, we the parents can have the greatest impact on our children’s sexual behavior. You could stack up all the sex education programs that do exist and none of them would be as successful as the parents who have established themselves as approachable by their children on sexual matters. In an ideal world, the schools would use an empirically validated sex education program and work collaboratively with parents who are approachable and who communicate effectively with their children. But until we can get the school sex education programs in order, the one thing we parents have control over is our ability to be the number one influence in our child’s sexual lives. You can do it—and this book will show you the way. Read on.