Why sex should not be a taboo subject

Media issues: Sex education worker Lynnette Smith is aware of changing perceptions of sex.            Picture Steve Taylor
Media issues: Sex education worker Lynnette Smith is aware of changing perceptions of sex. Picture Steve Taylor
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SEX is all Lynette Smith talks about. All day, every day, the Doncaster mum talks about that three-letter subject which, to many of us, is still a taboo.

And it’s not because she’s lurid or sleazy. It’s because it’s her job. Lynette does what most of us would find too difficult to do - talking to children about sex.

Lynette’s company - the aptly named Big Talk Education - travels to school across Doncaster to address the sensitive issue of sex and all its related issues, from children as young as four years old to teenagers, social workers, headteachers, and even parents.

And while, on first reaction, most of us would shriek at the thought of a four-year-old being educated about sex, Lynette says that isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ way of teaching.

“You teach primary school children about money but you don’t have to tell about how to get a mortgage. It could be the same thing with sex, we could teach that what they need to know at that age without going into massive detail.”

Her reasoning is simple: the internet has meant that the age at which children are exposed to sexual imagery, such as porn, is getting younger and younger.

As a result, the expectations and sometimes behaviour of these children is often entirely inappropriate, not least because they are children.

“The internet has made a massive difference to the way children think about sex,” she says. “The impact of the it is absolutely profound and many parents don’t realise what their children are able to access on line. Not all parents have controls on their internet, which means that children can access things that they really shouldn’t see.”

Results from recently-published research has shown that the average age at which a boy first uses pornography is 11, but Lynette estimates that this figure will already be lower.

“Research takes about three years to conduct and I believe that now the age at which most children first see porn is around eight years-old.”

And this, she says, comes with a whole host of problems.

“This means that by the time boys are getting their sex education at school at the age of 14 they have been exposed to porn for several years. The first impression of sex they are getting are one that isn’t real and will have a damaging effect on how they view future relationships.”

The nature of the images to which today’s children are exposed is much more hardcore than that of 30 years ago.

“Back in the 70s and 80s boys may have got hold of a porn magazine that belonged to an older brother, but the imagery then would have been like something you see in Zoo or Nuts magazine today - things have changed.”

Lynette has to try and teach them that sex is part of a loving relationship and that porn is not real. “They believe that this is how sex is, but I have to say to them ‘you watch Superman but you know he doesn’t fly, porn is the same - it’s no reflection of real sex.”

The impact of the porn sites on the internet has also affected the way in which girls see their own bodies.

“In the last five years there has been a huge trend in having pubic hair shaved. This is because it’s a feature of porn and it’s something that has filtered down to the way young people perceive what is ‘normal.’ Girls are going to clinic with rashes thinking that they have an sexually transmitted infection but actually it’s because the hair follicles have got infected as a result of too much shaving.”

The internet and children’s exposure to porn is a lot more destructive than parents think.

“Some children in primary school have started behaving in a sexually inappropriate way, doing things such as exposing themselves, so with children like that I will teach them on a one-to-one basis with flash card and they respond by putting their thumb up or thumb down about what is appropriate.”

Coupled with the impact of easily-accessed internet porn is the social phenomenon of broken families. Fewer children live with both parents today, as Lynette explains, so children’s exposure to healthy, lasting relationships is reduced. “Twenty or 30 years ago children were surrounded by role models of adults in long-term loving relationships. But today fewer children who live with both parents. Children really want to know about relationships and how they can make them work, so we have to teach them.”

She’s keen to stress in her teaching that relationships don’t have to be about sex. “We say that if someone loves you, they love you for who you are and not because they want to get you to bed. It’s okay to say no and if you’re not comfortable, don’t feel pressured into doing anything.”

Indeed, sex education, as Lynette explains, is vast. “It’s a massive area and it is hugely rewarding. We’ve gone to some of the sixth form colleges and asked some of the 18 year-olds about whether the sex education they received from us helped them as they got older and they all said ‘yes’.”

And while the statistics about children looking at porn are horrifying, it’s not all bad.

“Research has shown that the number of children under 14 who say they have had sex has dropped in the past four years from 45 per cent to 34 per cent. We always tell children that not everyone’s having sex - it’s okay to wait and it’s perfectly normal to wait. Children often want to be like their peers and knowing that their peers aren’t necessarily having sex is a good thing.”

But what is baffling, however, is the number of mothers of take their daughters to the clinic to be assessed for the pill or a contraceptive implant. “Nurses have asked some of these girls whether they are sexually active and the girls have said ‘no’ but their mothers still want them to go on the pill or have and implant because they want to prevent them becoming pregnant.”

This carries huge implications - parents, by obsessing about their not falling pregnant, are implying that it is expected of them to be having sex.

“It’s like if you say to your children ‘I hope you get all As to Cs in your GCSEs then you are implying that’s what you expect - but it works the other way too. Parents think that all teenagers are going to be having sex but they’re not.”

Lynette’s teaching is now the subject of a national award. “I’ve been nominated for the Pam Sheraton Award from the Family Planning Association, which is very exciting and we should now by next week whether we have won it.”

Fingers crossed that she wins. In the meantime, however, keep an eye on your parental internet controls

For Lynette’s home life, it’s a bit easier. “My children are 25 and 28 - and thank goodness!”

Learning the facts of life

Don’t assume kids simply know all they need to.

Don’t oversimplify.

Don’t use play names for body parts and especially don’t use names that actually mean something else.

Don’t ignore the topic.

Be aware of the fact that information and misinformation is quite often handed down from sibling to sibling.

Always ask more questions before you offer any possibly over-complex information. Kids are sometimes simpler beings. And very literal. You could find you’ve just done the whole shenanigans and they only wanted to know where the baby grows. Which, if the child is young, it only needs a finger pointing to the tummy.