Why we should tell five year olds about sex

A slightly abbreviated version of this was ‘performed’ at the Swindon Festival of Literature Think Slam 2014.

Modern society – especially our British and American societies – have a weird relationship with sex. Women who discreetly bare their breasts in public to feed an infant have been ostracised, as demonstrated by Holly McNish’s experience-inspired poem ‘Embarrassed’. Whereas page three of The Sun bearing young women’s breasts for sexual pleasure continues unabated. And news reports of pedophilia are run next to stories of female celebrities who have just turned sixteen and therefore suddenly sexually available.

Sex has massive exposure and proliferates through everything – art, marketing, Think Slams! – but equally we place great value on what we call childhood ‘innocence’. There is this idea that children will be become less happy or lose their childhood before they are ready if they know the details of sex.

This was demonstrated by the fact that sex education in schools for ages sixteen and under still remains non-mandatory after an amendment to the Children and Families Bill was rejected in the House of Lords only last year.

This use of the word ‘innocence’ shows that Saint Augustine’s doctrine of ‘original sin’ is still alive and kicking and embedded in our culture, that sex is something we need to cleanse ourselves from, but at the same time enjoy it as a dirty little secret. “Make me good, Lord, but not just yet,” said Augustine of Hippo.

But I believe that clinging onto this so called childhood innocence can put our children in a dangerous position of powerlessness.

And so we need to go further than Thomas Negal’s idea of mutual sexual arousal as a yardstick for consent or lack of perversion. Instead we need to look at what society finds acceptable and abhorrent and start there, because cultural attitudes have a massive influence on individual sex life.

French philosopher Foucault describes in The History of Sexuality how, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sex and sexuality became political, a way for society to manage and direct the life of individuals and of population. We’ve tried to free ourselves of this, but it seems instead the control of sex has moved away from the state and is nowadays proliferated as simply physical pleasure or an act of physical power on one individual against another.

Sex becomes power in an unbalanced relationship. We need to share the power by sharing the knowledge. On the one hand, this will defuse the power of sex by taking away its mystery, on the other: normalising it as a natural part of the life of a human being.

In the past we may have attempted to distance ourselves from sex as fun because we like to think of humans as having evolved higher than animals, as not simply following our so called base instincts. But I’d like to share with you an observation of the bonobos, a type of chimpanzee. Bonobos and chimpanzees are our closest genetic relations. Whereas ordinary chimpanzees, led by the alpha male, are very aggressive and will kill and even eat other chimpanzees if they invade their territory, the female-led bonobos have a different answer. They have sex. I have seen films of bonobos running at each other to fight only to have sex instead. Bonobos will do it with anyone – same sex, intergenerational sex, family sex – as a way to defuse argument and promote harmony. It’s often over in a matter of seconds. Now I’m not advocating we start bonking at business meetings instead of shaking hands, or ordered to have sex to resolve legal disputes – one step at a time – but it’s worth noting that the bonobos have no power in their sex; it equals mutual respect, love and communication.

Taught early and appropriately to children as an integral part of post-adolescent life, the mechanics of sex becomes another bodily fact. Anyone who’s had children will have observed that they treat their genitalia as just another part of their bodies, as important as their hands or feet. Bodily functions are of endless fascination to them. But this curiosity can be abused, and turned into a source of shame and hurt rather than a natural part of their lives. By allowing children from a young age to share in the knowledge of sex, we are protecting them from sexual predators, we are enabling them to make informed choices about their own sexual development.

I’d like to unparaphrase Sir Francis Bacon: “Knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, knowledge is happiness.” If we give children the knowledge of sex, they will have sexual control, safety and ultimately happiness.

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