Children, Rights, and Sexuality

[The following paper is a heavily abridged version of a chapter of a book I am currently working on and is not intended for citation or redistribution.]

1. Introduction

How should we address issues of sexuality with children? What information are children entitled to receive? These questions become particularly relevant when the issue of comprehensive sex education is debated. In the United States, the dominant approach to sex education has been to teach abstinence. Most federal funding for sex education programs has been tied to requirement that more controversial topics such as contraception and abortion not be included in sex education programs. In this paper I argue that children have a right—and society has an obligation—to provide children with comprehensive age-appropriate information about sexuality and sexual expression.

2. The Sexuality of Children

When discussing the sexuality of children there is a tendency to view them as either sexual innocents, or as pseudo-adults. Samantha Brennan and Jennifer Epps have referred to this dichotomy as the romantic child versus the knowing child.

The romantic child is characterized by his or her sexual innocence. The child’s lack of knowledge, experience, and interest in things sexual categorizes them as an object of concern that requires protection from the corrupting experiences of the adult world. When the predominate view of the child is one of innocence, the natural response is to shield the child from both less than ideal examples of sexuality, as well as from information about normal and healthy aspects sexuality. Exposing children to the mere idea of human beings as sexual is seen as instilling inappropriate thoughts and ideas in the child.

In contrast to the romantic child is the image of the knowing child. The knowing child can be described as a tragic figure, the innocent forced into adulthood by premature exposure to sexuality. While we may strive to prevent the creation of the knowing child, his or her knowledge changes the way we treat such children. The knowing child becomes a little adult—and unlike the romantic child—is treated as sexually autonomous. Innocence lost cannot be recaptured, and so the knowing child is viewed in one instance as a victim and in the other as an adult.

This distinction between the romantic and knowing child is often implicitly appealed to when discussing issues of children and consent, and represents an inaccurate representation of childhood sexuality.The danger of accepting this view of the knowing child is that it allows the abrogation of responsibility for the protection of these children. On the continuum between the protection of interests to the protection of choices, the knowing child falls closer to the latter. Since the child has unfortunately and possibly unwillingly lost his or her child status, then they now are seen by many as outside the purview of adult protection.

The romantic image of the child is by all psychological accounts a fiction. Far from being unaware, children are acutely aware of their sexuality, although they may not have the ability to articulate it. The fact that children are sexual necessitates parental involvement in guiding children from a fairly young age. Although it is clearly the case that children grow in their sexual awareness over time, this does preclude them from being sexually aware at a very young age.

The reality of children’s sexuality as neither that of the romantic innocent nor of the the knowing adult requires a correspondingly realistic and nuanced approach to the subject. As sexual beings children children require both protection as well as information. As moral beings it is also necessary to take seriously the rights implications of how those responsible for children should deal with the issue of sexual freedom. This issue is complicated given that children’s competence is normally not an all or nothing affair. As was discussed in the case of freedom of expression, children may gradually exhibit competencies over time and only with the assistance of adult decision makers.

Categorizing children as either romantic innocents or knowing children also misses an important aspect of children’s sexuality, namely, its place in the development of conception of the good life. While we often worry about children becoming sexually active at an inappropriate age, or worry about children having children, we often forget that sex and sexuality are part of an individual’s overall well-being. Development of sexual values is important aspect of this well-being.

Becoming a fully rounded person is often complicated when we add moral and religious views into the mix. The values a child may come to endorse as they mature may or may not coincide with those of his or her parents. It can be especially difficult for gay and lesbian adolescents who recognize very early on that their parents, family or community does not approve of their orientation. These situations prove extremely difficult to manage for a theory of children’s rights as the objection parents may have to homosexuality may be part of deeply held religious beliefs.

The recognition of children as sexual beings is important because of the obligation we have to protect children from harm. General well-being and rights claims aside, information is essential to protecting children from the very real harms that are possible from sexual ignorance. Recognizing children as developing sexual beings is not only essential to them leading an autonomous and a well-rounded life, but is also about preparing and providing children with the information to make responsible and safe decisions. It is with this understanding that I wish to focus on one controversial aspect of childhood sexuality—the debate over comprehensive sex education.

3. Comprehensive Sexual Education

The reality of children’s sexuality suggests that we have a correspondingly realistic assessment of what type of information children should receive. Assuming young children are not curious about matters of sexuality, or that children that have had some sort of sexual experience are competent to make decisions for themselves, are both equally specious views of their sexuality. Unfortunately, in the United States children are often not provided the information necessary to protect themselves from the harmful aspects of sexual activity, nor are they being prepared to make responsible choices in matters relating to their sexual life.

There is no one abstinence only curriculum. These programs vary widely depending on who teaches them, and where they are taught. While abstinence only programs can vary by state, county, school district, and individual instructor, in the United States federal funding is dependent on a program meeting eight essential criteria.
Of the eight requirements of an abstinence only programs, half require emphasizing the negative aspects of sex such as disease, physical harm, psychological harm, and the harm to one’s family. The other aspects place an emphasis on ways to avoid sexual advances, or on the safe course of action of sex within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

The focus of abstinence only programs is to instill the idea that sex is something to be avoided at all costs. The stated goal of teaching children and young adults that the standard of sexual activity is in the context of marriage is at best an ideal and at worst an outright distortion of the facts. >The majority of Americans—74% of them—have had sex before age 20.4 Further, contrary to public perception that premarital sex is much more common now than in the past, the study shows that even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 had sex before marriage[1].

These numbers demonstrate that abstinence is not—and has not been—the norm for some time. Given the reality that most young people will not wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, there is the danger that simply teaching what can go wrong will not help prepare young people to avoid that harm. Furthermore, even if they do delay sexual intercourse, it is highly probable that they will engage in other forms of sexual activity that is itself risky.

Abstinence only programs tend to focus on intercourse while excluding discussion of other forms of sexual activity. Even if there is reason to emphasize abstinence and the dangers of sex, abstinence only programs are doing a poor job of providing information about the dangers of other types of sexual activity—activities that can pose serious health risks. One fairly well-known example of this failure has occurred in the virginity pledge movement in the United States. Organizations such as True Love Waits encourage young people to promise to abstain from sex until marriage.

As with a large majority of abstinence only programs, the True Love Waits program does not discuss contraception or sexual activities outside of intercourse. The result of this omission was that young people that participated (took the pledge) had the same rates sexually transmitted infections as those who did not participate. According to Brückner and Bearman, there was no statistical difference between the rates of infection for pledgers and non-pledgers. Consequently, while pledgers delayed sexual intercourse for a longer period of time than non-pledges, they engaged in other risky sexual behavior resulting in the transmission of disease such as Gonorrhea, Human Papilloma Virus, Chlamydia and Trichomoniasis.[2]

The abstinence-only approach fails on several accounts to fulfill our obligations to children. First, such programs imply, if not directly teach, that sex is something to be generally feared. Secondly, it is based on the mistaken view of children as romantic innocents. Finally, the incomplete information about sex contained in abstinence only programs places young people at risk for sexually transmitted infections. These shortcomings point to a need for the type of information provided by comprehensive approaches to sex education.

Just like abstinence only programs, comprehensive programs admit of a number of variations. Generally, comprehensive sex education programs—also known as “abstinence plus” programs—encourage abstinence but also provide information on HIV and STD prevention and contraception. Comprehensive programs are designed to provide young people with age-appropriate information about a full-range of sexual practices, beliefs and values. These programs are generally sensitive to the cultural beliefs and values of the community, but they do not withhold information that is necessary for responsible decision-making.

Comprehensive programs are more forthright about the realities of teenage sexuality. While they do promote abstinence, they also acknowledge that many teenagers will engage in sexual activity. These programs teach about contraception and condom use, and discuss more sensitive topics such as abortion that abstinence-only programs do not.

Given the failure of abstinence only programs to protect young people and provide the information necessary to make responsible choice, one might expect to find greater support for comprehensive programs. Yet, many see such approaches as implicitly encouraging teens to engage in sex. The fear is that giving young people information about sex and contraception will result in greater sexual activity and all the negative consequences that may accompany it. While the idea that information may lead to engagement has some intuitive appeal, it turns out that the reality is quite different. In fact, the value of comprehensive sex education as a means of both delaying sexual activity, as well as resulting in more responsible behavior is well documented.

One of the most cited examples is that of Sweden’s comprehensive sex education program. Beginning in kindergarten, children in Sweden receive age appropriate, comprehensive information about sex and sexuality. Starting with lessons on basic anatomy and the joining of sperm and egg, children are taught to view sexuality as the natural part of the human experience. As children move into their teenage years they are given more information about contraception and the dangers of unprotected sex. They are also taught how to take control of their sex lives— instruction which stresses the virtues of being in a stable committed loving relationship, gender equality and waiting until one is ready to have sex.[3]

Given the substantial amount of exposure to sexual information that Swedish children receive, one might expect to find an increased amount of sexual activity among its young people. Yet, the result of providing children and young people with this information results in a far more responsible behavior. As Thomas Grose has reported:

The rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in Sweden are among the world’s lowest. Sweden’s teenage birthrate is 7 per 1,000 births, compared with 49 in the United States. Among 15-to–19-year-olds, reported cases of gonorrhea in the United States are nearly 600 times as great on a per capita basis[4]

Similar outcomes have been reported in the Canada and the Netherlands which also employ comprehensive sex education along with access to contraception. In the 2006 the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands for women age 15–19 was 18.8 per 1000. By contrast, in the same year the teen pregnancy rate for the same age group in the United States was 71.5 per 1000. In each instance where the national focus is on comprehensive sex education, there are a correspondingly low levels of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and abortions.[5]

The effectiveness of comprehensive programs demonstrates that from a purely practical standpoint they are a far better approach to sex education. They also have the added benefit of not only protecting young people from the dangers of sexual activity, but also provide the information necessary for making responsible choices. These aspects of comprehensive approaches make them a better fit with the moral obligations we have to children with respect to their sexual development.

4. Parents, Children, and Sexuality

Part of preparing a child for realizing a conception of the good life entails that they are able to express a preference for one life over another. An important aspect of that good life is the expression—or the freedom to express—one’s sexual identity. It also entails that they have the ability to participate in the construction of the type of community in which they live. In realizing their own sexual identity as they mature, children will eventually influence the nature or structure of the moral community. How sexuality is viewed, expressed, protected etc., will ultimately be determined by adult decision-makers. A healthy view of one’s sexuality will be needed to participate in that social conversation.

Although children are sexual beings, their sexuality develops over time. It is a parent’s responsibility to foster the healthy growth and development of the child. Parents and other caregivers have an obligation to protect a child’s interests, including the child’s interest in becoming an agent capable of making informed choices about his or her sexual life. Children do not just magically attain the capacity for meaningful choice, they develop it over time with the assistance of those who already have it. The capacity for choice, be it in clothing or sexual expression, develops in children by the exercise of a limited form of expression, that is, expression under the guidance of a caregiver.

Providing children with age-appropriate information, helping them foster healthy relationships with others, and teaching them to respect themselves and others, all helps to prepare them to be independent sexual beings. But, this preparation is not all or nothing. We do not provide children with a few sex education classes and then view them as capable of making responsible sexual decisions. Children still need guidance and even restrictions on activities. There are social, physical, and emotional consequences to sexual activity. The freedom or autonomy that we grant children in these matters is analogous to Hugh LaFollette’s “circumscribed normative autonomy”.

According to LaFollette, there are two types of autonomy, namely, descriptive autonomy and normative autonomy. Descriptive autonomy denotes the ability of an agent to make rational and informed choices based upon knowledge and experience. Normally, agents capable of making choices of this type are viewed as deserving of having those choices respected or at the very least protected. The respecting of such choices, or the recognition of choices as carrying moral force is defined as normative autonomy.

According to LaFollette, normative autonomy deals with how parents and authorities should relate to children. The distinction between descriptive and normative autonomy has, according to LaFollette, often been blurred. The assumption has traditionally been that children are not descriptively autonomous and thus we should not grant them normative autonomy. Usually, the granting of normative autonomy is fixed at some predetermined age.

LaFollette’s response to this all or nothing approach to autonomy is to extend to children what he calls “circumscribed normative autonomy” Circumscribed normative autonomy is a means of recognizing that children, though not descriptively autonomous, can exhibit some autonomous traits. In order for children to become autonomous, they must be trained in making autonomous choices. There is no magical moment when a child achieves descriptive autonomy, it is something that develops over time with guidance from adults. So, while children aren’t autonomous, we as adults have an obligation to help them achieve this descriptive ability.

It is easy to see how circumscribed normative autonomy can be extended to children and sexuality. Just as autonomy is something that develops as children are provided opportunities to make decisions under the guidance of adults, so too can decisions that relate to sexuality be developed by extending to children circumscribed normative autonomy in this area. Giving children some freedom of choice in matters that deal with sex and sexuality, along with an understanding of what counts as appropriate or inappropriate in a particular context and at a particular age, we further their development.

The idea of circumscribed normative autonomy supports the comprehensive approach to sex education. Providing children with guidance and information allows them to develop and progressively take on responsibility for their sexual lives. It also simultaneously protects children from the very real risks inherent in sexual activity. While some parents may be uncomfortable with the comprehensive approach, much like in case of religion, parents are entitled to influence a child’s sexual development or under what conditions their sexuality is expressed. But, respecting a child’s interest in becoming a fully autonomous sexual adult equipped to choose the life they will lead requires that parents do not unduly restrict a child’s access to information.

  1. Thomas K. Grose, “Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees” U.S. News and World Report (online) (Posted 3/18/07)  ↩

  2. Hannah Brückner and Peter Pearman. “After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges” in Journal of Adolescnet Health 36 (2005): 271.  ↩

  3. Thomas K. Grose, “Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees” U.S. News and World Report (online) (Posted 3/18/07)  ↩

  4. Ibid  ↩

  5. Advocates for Youth. “Adolescent Sexual Health in Europe and the United States: The Case of a Rights. Respect. Responsibility. Approach. (Accessed March 2012)  ↩

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