The Sexualization of Children and Sex Education

By Kate Ringer

A concern for many parents is the sexualization of children, which is defined by the American Psychological Association as occurring when, “A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, a person is held to a standard that equates 

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An illustration of a popular doll for children

physical attractiveness with being sexy, a person is sexually objectified, or sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a child.” As this article points out, children are not inherently sexual. When we see babies’ upper thighs in their onesies, we aren’t concerned with people thinking that our babies are sexy, and it should be the same exact way with a child. A child wearing short shorts and a tank top isn’t inherently sexy, but they become that way when the child is taught to engage in inappropriate behaviors, such as the dance routines on Toddlers & Tiaras. Children do not behave that way unless they have been taught to behave that way through the constant media bombardment of sex culture, whether it’s through video games, movies, television shows, advertisements, or their toys. There was a study conducted by Bandura in the sixties that showed children mimicking, or “modeling,” the behavior of adults after being exposed to short video of adults playing with a doll happily
or violently. If they viewed the adult being violent with the doll, they were much more likely to be violent when exposed to the doll in their play. This concept of modeling can certainly be applied to the sexualization of children as well. Children whose parents and the media model behavior that model sexualized behavior may transfer the behavior to their own actions, according to Bandura’s theory of learning. I can remember as a child wanting to wear lipstick just like my mom, and it felt so special when I got to wear it for a special occasion. That is an example of modeling. 

 

The sexualization of children is not to be confused with normal developmental behaviors. It is completely normal for children to explore their bodies and their genitals, in public and in private. In this article, a mother discusses how she needs to tell her daughters, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” It is also normal for children to explore the bodies of 

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A child looking at their genitals

their friends and siblings through childhood games like doctor. When witnessing these encounters, parents need to remember that this is not a sexual act to children, and not something to shame them for. However, it is an opportunity for parents to educate their children.

In these two videos, “How to Talk to Kids About Sex” and “What Should You Say to Kids About Their Genitals,” Dr. Lindsey Doe explains approaches that parents can take to discuss sexual topics with their children without having to feel awkward or shaming their child. Despite what one may think, talking about sexual topics does not lead to children becoming more sexualized, rather it helps them learn and understand cultural norms and values so that they can appropriately navigate sexual contexts as they age and have the background to ask questions as they come up. It’s really important that children are raised in a sex positive environment so they are better protected from shame and sexual-violence. When children have questions about sex, they shouldn’t be glossed over or lied to. If parents answer their children honestly, then their children will learn that their parents are a good source of information and that they will support them if they need it.

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A cartoon comparing abstinence-only sex education with a Driver’s Ed course

There have been many studies proving that comprehensive sex education in schools significantly decreased teen pregnancy and marginally reduced instances of vaginal intercourse. This is contrary to the belief that educating teens on birth control and STDs will lead to more high-risk behaviors. In contrast, abstinence-only education doesn’t reduce the likelihood of vaginal intercourse, which is the primary purpose of abstinence-only education.

This pattern continues for parent-child bonds. The stronger the bond, the less likely children are to have sex at a young age, and the more likely they are to use birth control when they do have sex. If children don’t learn about sex from school or their parents, they will find a way to learn about sex, whether it’s through their peers, porn, or exploration. I don’t know about you, but I would personally much rather my child learns about sex from me than through porn, as this gives me much more control over the values and perceptions that my child will have about sex.

Navigating sex education is definitely tricky, but it is also extremely important. Parents have the opportunity to shape how their children view sex, and that opportunity shouldn’t be passed up. If parents communicate with their children, they can combat the sexualization of their children through many cultural sources. The best way to prevent the sexualization of children is through education and open communication; luckily, this is one of the things that parents have the most control over. It is not up to the child to prevent themselves from becoming sexualized, rather it is the parent’s job to help their child navigate a culture that sexualizes them. Almost no parents want their child to grow up too fast; ironically, one of the best ways to prevent this is to educate them.

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