When my 18-month-old niece starting touching her vagina the first time I changed her diaper, I wondered if I should leave the room and give her some privacy. In shock and unsure about what would happen next – unwanted pee on my bed included – I decided the best course of action was to simply brush her hand away and finish putting on her diaper.
That act of avoidance on my part, not my niece touching herself, is the bigger issue.
I could have said to my sister, “Aye, aye, when I was changing Alisha* I noticed she was touching her ‘pim-pim’. I thought you might want to know.”
While a toddler may not be intentionally feelin’ up herself to feel good, the fact is that it does feel good. And those feelings don’t go away. In fact, they can get more complicated, as that toddler gets older and enters the school system.
Teachers, school administrators, youth workers, and police officers alike all have her on speed dial to deal with the “mess” pervading classrooms on the island.
If you doubt the need for people willing to do the difficult work that Alleyne has taken up as her calling, picture this: she regularly counsels five and six-year-old boys who have wrapped their penises in foil to have sex with girls, and the girls who have had their most delicate part violated by the little bionic shafts. Remember your first time when only flesh (and hopefully latex) was involved? Nuff said.
In my disbelief, during our phone interview, I asked the ignorant question, “Are these children in rural areas?” I was hoping that the ‘country-booky’ stereotype could be blamed for the absence of education and common sense. But these behaviours are prevalent in schools, from country to town, and from prestige to under-resourced.
Parenting a child is one thing. Try having to teach 20 to 30 children, each with their own biological impulses and curiosities. There’s no question, in my mind, that teachers need to be equipped to lead conversations with children about sex. Ideally, parents should be doing most of the talking, but given the amount of time spent in school and the physiological parties that start in our bodies before secondary school, sex education should start from Standard/Grade One.
The question is, what needs to be addressed in this age of sexting, and profile pages on social networks?
As adults, our experiences, thoughts, judgements, morals, and hang ups often get in the way of our ability to say “sex” and “child” in the same sentence, without becoming tongue-tied. We avoid honest conversations with ourselves and the children in our care, resulting in missed opportunities to create a safe place for them to explore during a time of questioning and discovery.
My conversations with my mother, as a child, were focused around being aware of the threat of boys/men and any inappropriate touching and advances…and her willingness to kill them in a minute should they dare touch me.
School, however, was a different story. I remember one conversation in particular led by the ‘fass’ one in my group. We were a crew of four ten-year-old girls who learned about “cheese” and other varieties of vaginal discharges, one day after school. Apparently, the yellowish, cheesy one was a no-no to have on the crotch of your panty.
I was disgusted and silently hoped I would never encounter any “cheese” of my own. But, I also remember being fascinated by her apparent wealth of knowledge about her body, and how the onset of puberty was beginning to change it.
Within the Outlish crew, there are similar stories of crude introductions within the school context, especially around sexual acts.
Kevin was introduced to sex through what he calls “the deceptive innocence of the school yard.”
“Out of the mouth of babes, I found out who get ‘feel-up’ by the ravine behind de school, and who had big ‘toetee’, and this was primary school,” he said. “Naturally, by the time secondary school rolled around, there were the scandalous stories about those who cut class to have orgies, and those who were smashing de maxi conductor.
“As far as children today are concerned, I think that they’re a bit overexposed, but that’s their ‘normal’. Adults need to adjust, and be open and honest with information, because the school yard is the last thing you need to be concerned with nowadays.”
Unfortunately, what gets labelled as “slackness” is biology taking the reigns, turning on impulses that can lead to innocent show-and-tell sessions in the school bathroom, or more overt sexual behaviour, such as fondling and intercourse between minors.
According to Alleyne, “We keep hiding, not explaining [to our children] what’s happening [with their bodies]. Everything is hush-hush, but knowledge comes first.” With the right knowledge, she points out that we would no longer be surprised that a boy or girl can become aroused, while sitting in class. It boils down to pheromones – the hormones of attraction. Instead, we would have an opportunity to curb unsafe practices.
Even as I write, I know I’m just scratching the surface of what is a daunting task. There’s still the elephant in room: sexual preference. How do we support students who may have feelings for someone of the same sex? Raise your hand if you might be facing an old criminal charge under the contentious “Romeo Clause” that recently made waves in Trinidad and Tobago’s Children Bill. Ha! Thought so…It’s not something that’s easy to admit.
As reported in the Trinidad Guardian on May 28, 2012, the Bill talks about “decriminalization of sexual activity between children”. But there’s an unfortunate caveat. The ‘bligh’ is not extended to acts between children of the same sex.
Here’s where the big “R” rears its inflexible head in the sex education discourse.
Many of our schools are inextricably linked to one religion or another. Is it even plausible to imagine a time when the administrators of those schools would consider separating religion from biology to develop a sex education curriculum that supports the positive development of all children? Are these conversations even a thought? I’m reservedly optimistic.
Whatever your ideology, we need to get our acts together for the health and wellness of our children. It’s time we do away with silence and ignorance. What say you?
*Not her real name.
Image credit: unesco.org