Sex education and children: ‘It’s not harmful to talk about sex!’

Sheila de Courcy, Chella Quint and Julia Samuels

With two children aged nine and eleven, sex education is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot. What are they learning at school? What are they talking about with friends? What, heaven forbid, are they finding their way to online when I’m not looking? And what can I do to help them grow up into healthy, happy and respectful adults when it comes to sex and everything around it?

It’s stressful. But by the end of the ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ session at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield this morning, I wasn’t feeling stressed. I was feeling joyful — aided by the fact that with the rest of the audience, I was skipping my way out of the conference venue performing an interpretative dance while singing a song about periods.

I can explain (later). The session featured a panel of broadcasters and creative people talking about different ways they’ve explored topics including sex, relationships, menstruation and abortion for young audiences.

The first speaker was activist Mercy Ngulube, who was born with HIV, and has been campaigning to dispel the stigma of the virus. One of her recent projects involved working with the makers of TV show Casualty on a plotline about a young person with HIV.

“There are about 7,000 20–30 year-olds in the UK that have grown up living with HIV,” said Ngulube, who said that when she first found out she’d been born with HIV, she was told not to tell anyone: “Not even my little sister”. That sense of shame is something she’s trying to tackle.

“It’s just not something we talk about, but it’s something that is a huge issue here in the UK and in Europe,” she said. “60% of new infections last year, globally, were in Europe. That’s a ridiculous statistic, for the medical care and money that Europe has to be able to tackle that.”

Mercy Ngulube

Ngulube backed a recent call from Sir Elton John for media companies to help to dispel the stigma around HIV and “to spark conversation that will create sustainable change”. She also said that the Casualty plotline had led to hundreds of young people around the UK messaging her to say how important it was to have seen themselves represented on-screen.

“They do everything that a normal young people does, and it is okay to include them in the content that you make,” she said, addressing the audience of TV producers, broadcasters and other creatives.

“It is okay to raise a generation that is able to ask questions relating to sexual issues,” she concluded. “We have everything we need to end AIDS, but we’re not having the conversations we need to end AIDS.”

The panel discussion kicked off after Ngulube’s speech, led by documentary producer and director Sheila de Courcy, whose introduction focused on the recent referendum on abortion in her native Ireland, and some of the campaign materials leading up to it.

“There was a month prior to the end of May when children all over Ireland were faced with posters with such things as a foetus sucking its thumb asking ‘Why do you want to kill me?’” she said.

“These were literally on lampposts all over Ireland, and very small children were being exposed to these images… But for a country that has had a history of secrets and lies, it actually has exploded the whole area of sex education. What should we be telling kids? So on a personal level, this is a really, really timely conversation.”

Each panelist had been involved with shows or projects that addressed a certain aspect of sex education for young people.

Juliëtte van Paridon works for Dutch broadcaster NTR, whose Doctor Corrie Show is aimed at nine year-olds and up, blending humour and music with information — “not only about biology class, it’s about feelings, emotions and relationships” — complete with a spin-off book that comes with its own memory-cards game featuring vaginas and penises.

Telidja Klaï from Belgian broadcaster Ketnet, had a similar show called The Doctor Bea Show, aimed at children aged between nine and 12 years old. “A lot of research told us that giving sexual information to this target group is very important… to be ready to make sexual choices later on,” she said.

Calum McSwiggan is a YouTuber, radio broadcaster and LGBTQ+ activist, whose radio show is aimed at people in their late teens and early twenties, but whose YouTube channel (about gay rights, sex education, mental health and other topics) is more for 12 year-olds and up.

“I have complete autonomy over my own YouTube channel: I’m not answering to anyone… I dictate what I do and don’t talk about,” he said. “But if I’m educating people, I have to make sure it’s the correct information, that it’s researched.”

Meanwhile, Julia Samuels from youth theatre company 20 Stories High talked about a project about young women and abortion, with a script based on verbatim interviews with women. It transferred from the stage to TV via a BBC 2 partnership in the UK.

“Let’s have a conversation about abortion.. the statistic is that one in three women in the UK will have an abortion in their lifetimes. We were fascinated by the fact that all these women are carrying around these stories, and not saying anything about them,” she said.

“It sounds like it might all feel quite dark in tone, but what the verbatim gives… there’s a humour in which people express themselves. They have a sense of irony, they have a sense of humanity. There are things that are difficult: for some people abortion might be a very difficult experience. But for some people it might be okay.”

Finally, artist, comedy writer and educator Chella Quint talked about her Period Positive project, which is trying to break the patterns of secrecy, misinformation and shame around periods. It began as a live show aimed at adults, but has since been adapted for younger people too.

“I use joy and humour to challenge the taboo of menstruation. It provides a good shock, rather than a horror shock… using humour opens it up and people are more willing to talk about it,” said Quint.

The common theme to all these projects: the more we as a society talk about all aspects of sex in an honest, open way, the more information we’ll have to make good decisions and get support if necessary — including children. So what age, wondered de Courcy, should we start talking to children about sex?

“In my opinion, you should talk as soon as the child is ready, but on the level of the child. With pre-schoolers, you can talk about emotions, about hygiene. You can talk about animals getting babies and so on,” said Klaï.

“It’s important to have an open communication, even in [TV] programmes about these topics… so that as the child grows, you have an open climate to have a conversation on each level.”

A four year-old couldn’t understand the concept of abortion, she stressed. But if they understand the concept of having babies at this age, any conversation about a topic like abortion when they are nine, 10 or 11 years old will be easier.

“I totally agree. You should start when they’re four years old. Talk about friendships, relationships, your body, what are the differences between boys and girls. Research shows that if you are well educated [early] then when you are older, you are happier with your love life, you’re more comfortable setting boundaries. You start having sex later… So it’s very important to start with open communication,” said van Paridon.

“Sometimes it irritates me that we talk about ‘ages’. It’s not harmful to talk about sex. It’s not a bad thing! If you go out there [in the world / on the internet] you’ll see loads of pictures about sex. All the kids see them! So why is it bad to have good information about it?”

Telidja Klaï, Calum McSwiggan and Juliëtte van Paridon

One theme running through the panel was the idea of no-nonsense advice and conversations: with humour and straight talking, rather than awkwardness and deflection.

With periods for example, Quint said that there’s a tendency for parents to put off the conversation — “I’ll tell you when you’re older!” — which she thinks sends a message that menstruation is shameful.

“But there are teachable moments. If a three year-old thinks ‘wee’ and ‘poo’ and ‘vomit’ are hilarious, just talk about periods too! But also the serious moments: if a son or daughter says ‘what are those period pads on top of the toilet, or a menstrual cup… just explain what it is as simply as you can,” she said. “Ask a question and get a straight answer!” agreed de Courcy. “An age-appropriate straight answer. And the fear goes.”

McSwiggan pointed out that ‘sex education’ is about far more than just sex. “People say we shouldn’t be talking to four year-olds about sex, but it’s perfectly fine to educate a four year-old about what a penis is, what a vagina is. It’s part of their body,” he said.

And later on: “Talking to a young person [about periods] as they’re starting their first period is too late. They need to have that information already… People are having intercourse at younger and younger ages, so we need to talk to them about it before that.”

Samuels agreed, noting that if someone finds themselves with a pregnancy that they didn’t expect or don’t want, they have a very short time to make a decision on what to do — if that’s the first time they get proper information about abortion, it’s too late also (or rather: it adds an extra layer of stress).

The panel also talked about the responsibility of the children’s media industry — from TV broadcasters to companies like YouTube — to help children deal with some of the less appropriate content they may encounter. Porn, for example.

“We need to teach media literacy, but not just say we’re teaching media literacy. We need to build concrete stuff in to the work we’re doing that teaches young people to watch our content, but also gives them the tools to deconstruct the other content that nobody controls,” said Quint.

Broadcasters and show-makers do have some challenges though. Samuels talked about being asked to produce a list of ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ abortion voices in her company’s project. “I said I’ll do it, but I don’t see any reason why those are going to balance,” she said.

van Paridon said that criticism of sex-education shows is inevitable, but said that NTR tries to ensure parents feel comfortable with its programmes — for example by publishing guides on its website to help them start conversations with their children about the topics.

McSwiggan answered this question from a YouTuber’s perspective. “Although I can say this content is aimed at 12+, anybody can access this content on YouTube. That’s the biggest piece of criticism I receive. But anybody can access porn if they want to and children aren’t getting the [sex] education that they need, and they’re turning to the internet to find that information.”

De Courcy summed up, for the industry. “We need to address this as content makers, as programme makers and as broadcasters. As leaders. We are the ones with power and access to media and to the discussions. Children’t don’t have that: they have to seek it out. So we take a responsibility in doing this,” she said.

Cue Quint ending the conference session by teaching the audience a song (and interpretive dance) about different period products, based around four steps and the words “Internal! External! Disposable! Reusable!” and sending the crowd out into the world with a spring in their step — and the sense that sex education can be engaging, honest and anything but dry.