Sanitized sex-ed is dangerous

Swapping correct anatomical words like "penis" and "vagina" with the vague term "private parts" in the sex-ed curriculum doesn't uphold modesty—it teaches shame.

Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

The recent decision by Thorncliffe Park public school in Toronto to offer the grade-one sex-ed curriculum without naming genitalia is far from a “very simple accommodation,” as the school’s principal Jeff Crane calls it. By replacing the words “penis” and “vagina” with “private parts,” the school is swapping basic anatomy with a lesson on sexual shame. While some parents of students may claim this provision helps to uphold a religious value of modesty, I would argue that naming genitalia in no way challenges a regard for decency. Teaching the term “private parts” in the early years send the message to kids that the real names for these body parts are unacceptable and secret which breeds shame and a lack of dignity.

The curriculum doesn’t glorify sex or focus on one part of the body over others but rather gives kids knowledge that supports their health and wellness. While Thorncliffe Park will offer kids information about inappropriate touching (as per the curriculum), to provide it without naming the body parts involved teaches kids that not even they can know their bodies. This doesn’t protect them—it puts them at risk. Research shows that some kids do not report sexual abuse because they have learned they shouldn’t say “those” words.  Or, when they do try to report abuse, because they’re only equipped with cute or vague language, kids are often either misunderstood or not believed. If a child is taught to feel shame by merely mentioning the words, imagine the potential disgrace of having those parts touched.

Equipped with the proper names for their body parts and with ongoing, age-appropriate lessons about how those parts function, our kids learn to communicate comfortably, honestly and openly about their bodies. If your kid has an infection—a bladder infection, for instance, can cause burning when he urinates—or if she’s hurt—a fall can bruise the pubic bone or too-vigorous wiping can scratch the labia or scrotum, for example—your child will find it easy to tell trusted people about it.

It’s not just important to teach our kids to love and respect their own bodies. It’s equally important for them to learn the names of the body parts they don’t have. We ought to highlight all the similarities among male and female bodies and point out the fabulous differences. If kids are informed and can express curiosity today, they’ll more likely talk to their future sexual partners about their bodies without hesitation or embarrassment.

I appreciate that modesty is a key value for some. We can certainly reinforce the idea that words like penis, testicles, scrotum, vulva, vagina and anus need not be yelled in the schoolyard. We can teach privacy without making genitals a secret.

The new curriculum is what our kids need to thrive today and an erosion of it in grade one will lead to further losses. If we think eliminating real words is a “simple accommodation,” are we prepared for the consequences of leaving out other lessons too?


Marnie Goldenberg's work is centered around supporting parents, caregivers, and professionals in raising sexually intelligent kids. Find more at her site or @sexplainer.

This article was originally published on May 17, 2016

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