Sex and the Middle Schooler

Not that long ago, this title would have seemed preposterous.  Today few kids can avoid the sexualization from the media, their peers and even their own bodies.

As school opened this September, my rural community was in an uproar over the disappearance of our middle school when budget constraints forced a conversion to a K-6 and 7-12 school arrangement.  Parents feared sending their 12-year olds to the high school environment.  Sexuality was certainly on their minds.

Unfortunately though, few children are as sexually naive as we think.  Sexuality permeates not just television and movies, but also billboards, pop music, internet advertising, email spam, video games and packaging.  Even the most diligent parent would be hard-pressed to protect her children from all of it.  Add to this the now common usage of words that once earned us an Ivory Soap mouthwash.  Even if completely sheltered from the sexuality in all forms of media, children would still be exposed to sexual talk from their peers at school.

Both parents and schools need to respond to kids' realities.  For parents, some easy prevention strategies:
  • Do something together with each child every day if you can.  Ride bikes, play a game, go for a walk, swim or whatever else is mutually interesting.  Build a relationship of comfort with your son/daughter.
  • Keep computers in a public room in the house, not in a child's bedroom or other sequestered area.  When kids are on the computer, drop by regularly with milk and cookies, a question, any excuse.  Check your computers "history" to see where your computer has traveled.
  • If your kids are on Facebook or similar social sites, set up your own account and "friend" them. and their friends.
  • Leave the television in the family room and establish rules for its use.  No kid needs a TV in his bedroom.
  • Postpone giving your child a cellphone as long as you can.  When you do give her one, consider a bottom end model -- no internet surfing, no sexting possibilities.
  • Ask your school principal about health education at the school.  Does it cover what he needs?  (see below)

    Earlier onset of puberty adds to the pressure at middle schools to address sexuality.  Girls are now showing signs of puberty before age 10.  Childhood obesity is one culprit:  most girls begin menses at about 106 pounds, a threshold that comes earlier now.  Other causes of early puberty being researched include certain toxic compounds in plastics and the changing make-up of families.

    Regardless of the causes, neither biology nor culture justifies delaying sex education until high school.  But that is exactly what our public schools are doing.  Note the Oregon Health Education Standards:

    8th Grade: Promotion Of Sexual Health
    Acquire knowledge and skills that emphasize the importance of safe behaviors in maintaining sexual health. [Related OARs: OAR 581-022-1440 Infectious diseases including Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)and Hepatitis B and C; Related ORS: 336.455 Human sexuality
    education courses.]
    HE.08.SH.01 Identify possible short and long-term consequences of sexual activity, including what it means to be responsible for the results of one's decisions. 
    HE.08.SH.02 Practice effective communication skills to refuse sexual pressures and communicate the consequences of sexual activity. (Interpersonal Communication)
     Do we believe that this will be sufficient preparation for the sexual world that surrounds our 13-year olds?  Read what Science Daily found regarding middle school sexual activity.  Instead of focusing on the need for sex education, adults in Oregon perseverate on whether abstinence or birth control should be taught.  You could eliminate both and still have a much improved sex education for middle school students.

    Here are some pieces middle school kids need most:
    • Body image:  healthy vs. media-promoted.  Feeling good about your body and yourself, even though it's imperfect.
    • Sexual development:  an accurate objective look at how their bodies are changing.  Not just focusing on how reproduction happens, but including sexual desire as well.  How boys and girls, men and women differ.
    • Sexual abuse and sexual safety:  clear information about child sexual abuse, delivered with caring and compassion since as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys are victims.  Include the reality that 93% of abusers are known to the victims and half of child sexual abusers are under 18 themselves.  Discuss resources for help and assurance that victims are not at fault.  Discuss sexual safety issues, such as alcohol and dating relationships.
    • Date rape and dating violence (and their opposites, of course).   Teach students about the Cycle of Violence.  There are excellent resources for teaching students about healthy relationships.  Empowering girls is a first step. (We brought Mike Domitrz to our school twice and his message was well received by both parents and students.)
    • Setting goals:  children who see themselves entering college and going on to exciting careers are less likely to engage in early sexual experiences. 
    • Sexual myths:  check your spam folder if you need reminders.
    • Sexual harassment: definitions, defense, school policies.  Include texting, Facebook, sexting as well as direct personal harassment. 
    Battling dominant images in the media and on the playground can seem daunting.  What both girls and boys see as expectations need to be corrected, preferably with students involved in analyzing those media-fed images.  

    Sex education can be delivered in a way that is acceptable to nearly all parents.  Parents need to know the full breadth of the course and can have an "opt out" option, per state law.  However, districts that still use the "opt in" are cheating their students.  If parents object, let them indicate so in writing.  Don't require students to bring in approval forms to be included.

    High school sex education has finally reached a point where frank presentations and discussions are the norm.  But districts need to realize that what 14 year olds once needed to know is now appropriate for even 11 year olds.  High school is too late.