Child sexual abuse can be prevented through sexual education, whether that happens at home, at school, or in the community. Children sometimes need help understanding where the boundaries are with many things, and sex and sexuality is no exception. Also, if children know what the boundaries are, they are less likely to be targeted for being abused or abusing others in the future.
Part of sexual education is knowing abuse prevention: Boundaries and when to say no, who to tell if someone crosses that boundary, safe vs. unsafe touch, and more. The research shows that the younger we begin these lessons and the more children hear them, the better off children are. Far from not comprehending these complex topics, children absorb them. While some critics suggest that prevention is an adult responsibility and that teaching abuse prevention to children can make abuse harder for them, these critiques are not justified in research.
During childhood, children gain a great many skills that help them grow into adulthood. The abilities to physically manipulate objects, socialize, think critically, handle emotions, and learn new things are all areas we know that children develop. They are often covered in school. In adulthood, the ability to make informed decisions, handle finances, get and maintain a job, socialize, and a great variety of other things are essential to succeeding as an adult. The fact of the matter is that adults also form romantic relationships, and yes, have sex. Ignoring that children develop sexually does not help them grow into adults that form appropriate romantic relationships within whatever ethical or religious constraints apply to them. It can also hinder their ability to know what sexual behaviors are legal and illegal also, and not knowing what their resources are or having reliable sources to talk to about sex and sexuality can set them up to fail.
Teaching a child about sex and sexuality can be one awkward conversation, but it is much better to break bits of sexual education into multiple talks and discussions. Not only does this help the child process the new information at their own pace, it allows for new questions that may not be possible when only one conversation happens. Conversations should be short, age-appropriate, and use the proper terms for body parts: Cute words like pee-pee should be avoided, because these terms can make conversations, and their private areas, feel like a game or feel awkward to discuss. Be blunt and serious: Call the body part what it is, without embarrassment or shame. Practice in the mirror if it helps. Say out loud: Penis, vagina, anus, breasts, vulva, and testicles to the point where you can say them without so much as blushing.
There are many resources out there for talking to children about sex at a wide variety of age levels, but remember that having multiple small conversations about the topic is more beneficial to your child than having one long discussion. It reinforces what you are telling them, but it also sends the message that they can talk to you, even about the serious, awkward, and embarrassing stuff. While being able to maintain boundaries on who can and cannot touch the child's private areas is important, it is just one part of the point of sexual education, which is to have healthy sexuality.
When some talk about sexuality, sometimes all we hear is that it is about sexual intercourse, or the biological and physical side to sex.
However, sexuality is about far more than just sex. It is also about boundaries, safety, physical health, and mental health. Developing a healthy sexuality means having the skills to develop healthy and age-appropriate romantic relationships that can last while being able to identify appropriate and inappropriate relationship behaviors in a partner. It means being able to identify when sex is both inappropriate and appropriate inside those romantic relationships.
Proper sexual education teaches that the child's body belongs to them, and they get to make their own decisions about who can touch them and how, whether that touch is sexual or not. Sexuality is about a child's freedom to express themselves and be comfortable in their own bodies, without fear of bullying or harassment. Sexuality teaches that your body belongs to you, your child's body belongs to them, and that boundaries people create around when and how people can touch you or your child must be respected.
Sexuality may sound like a politically charged word, but the point is not to have sex and have sex early or teach values or morality around sex. The point is to be healthy around sex, relationships, and mental health, and give children the tools they need to successfully navigate social and sexual interactions without causing harm. The point is for each person to identify what they are comfortable with, where their boundaries are, and being able to have complex conversations. Navigating these areas can be complicated for children if they have no guidance. Healthy sexuality is important to teach to a child, so that they will have the skills to stay healthy. While a part of healthy sexuality is indeed knowing about STD's and STI's and taking the proper contraceptive precautions, it is so much more than just knowing the physical aspects of sexual health: It includes the mental health aspects as well.