During training to become a sexual assault victim advocate, we heard from counselors, law enforcement, and medical staff on how to be equipped when assisting victims of all ages. One of the things that stuck with me was a story from one of the counselors in regards to helping pediatric patients, and the importance of early sex education.
When this counselor was still a teacher in an elementary school, she had a girl around kindergarten age come up to her in distress, upset that a little boy had, “touched her pocketbook.” As you or I would probably do, the woman chuckled, instructed the girl to tell the boy not to do that—thinking it was actually a purse about which she was referring—and sent her on her way.
It was only later that she learned that the girl was referring to her vagina as her “pocketbook,” as she had been taught to do by her parents. This lead to the child thinking that she had done something wrong; she reported a problem—correctly instructed by her parents—to an authority figure, only to find it to be dismissed.
The teacher was horrified to learn she had, unknowingly, turned away a child who was seeking help, but it ultimately wasn’t her fault. It was a lack of proper sex education.
Giving genitalia its proper names is something we all shy away from doing—we see it in our favorite shows, like ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ where vaginas are referred to as “va-jay-jay,” and in an episode of ‘Sex and the City,’ when, in couples therapy, Charlotte named hers “Rebecca.”
It can feel awkward and uncomfortable when we say “breasts” instead of “boobs,” and “penis” instead of “dick.” But in order to teach proper sex education to young women and girls, we have to get over the stigma surrounding the use of proper biological terms.
The reality is that we also have to start early – something that the parents in this story did do right. That child knew that having her genitalia touched was wrong, and she reported it. We just have to encourage parents and authority figures to follow through when educating children. They are depending on us to guide the way and be the examples they need us to be.
So, what can you do?
- First, know that it’s natural to feel embarrassed, nervous, or awkward before you have these conversations. Talk to your friends and family and get advice on how they started the sex education talk, or even have a trusted companion join you. If you need a glass of wine to calm your nerves, that’s okay, too!
- Second, be open and honest. These young eyes and ears pick up on EVERYTHING, and they’ll be able to tell if you’re evading questions or answers.
- Third, teach them to call genitalia by its proper names, and to be confident when they do so. The more we normalize something that should already be normal, the less embarrassed we’ll be using those words.
- Lastly, make sure they know that it is always safe to come to you, and try to have another designated person who is also “safe,” whether it’s a best friend, neighbor, or teacher. It can be really hard for children to speak up, especially in situations where they are afraid. Have a password that only you, the child, and the other person know, so that she knows there’s always a way for her to find help.
Let’s talk about sex ed – it’s never too early!
Emily Greene works in Promotions for CBS and NBC affiliates in the Augusta, Georgia and North Augusta, South Carolina areas. She has a BA in Art, and is finishing a second degree focusing on Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, and English. Active in promoting social justice, especially the awareness of women’s issues, she is the Chair of the Women’s Caucus of the Young Democrats of Georgia, as well as their Communications Director, the Vice President of the Young Democrats of Augusta Richmond County, Membership Chair and Committee Member of the Columbia County Democratic Party, and a volunteer for Rape Crisis and Sexual Assault Services. Emily’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Cult Collective, Washington State University’s literary journal, LandEscapes, and PLACE (SACRED SPACE) Without Beginning or End, a book about weaving by Rachel Snack of Weaver House Company.