Child Abuse Prevention Month has been observed in April since 1983. This campaign arose to raise public awareness about child abuse and neglect, and in the decades since, our cultural attitudes around how to support and care for young people have continuously shifted and evolved. One focus of preventing abuse is protecting children from exposure to mature topics, such as violence or sexuality. Over the past several years, states governments have increasingly focused on regulating sexuality education: from banning educators from speaking about differences in sexual orientation, gender, and family makeup, and even banning puberty and menstruation education until 6th grade (after a notable amount of young people are likely to have already started menstruating). In states where progress is made, such as here in Illinois with the adoption of the National Sex Education Standards, we have still experienced backlash and misinformation. One common cultural narrative seems to be that any education that addresses potentially mature themes is harming children. But what does research and practice actually tell us about how sex education impacts children’s safety and wellbeing?
First, let me clarify that when I am talking about sex education in elementary grades, I am talking about age-appropriate introductions to topics such as consent, personal safety and abuse education, healthy relationships, and anatomy and human development. In many states including our own, what is age-appropriate is determined by the National Sex Education Standards, which were authored by a diverse coalition of experts in the field, including pediatricians and nurses—experts on child physical health and development. A ton of thought and care was put into when certain topics are introduced, and flexibility for schools or communities to adjust for their specific population is built in.
Now, onto the research. Decades of studies on sex education and abuse prevention education demonstrate that talking early and often about the listed topics help young people develop skills that prevent and report sexual abuse. Studies have shown increased ability to identify an inappropriate touch or an unsafe situation and ability to distinguish between safe and unsafe secrets. Not only is knowledge of child abuse increased, which is crucial to identifying if it is happening to oneself or others, but the ability to respond when abuse happens also improves. Some of the strongest outcomes of early sex education relate to children identifying who they could tell if they we’re being harmed and abused and demonstrating reporting behaviors. (Read about these outcomes and many more here.)
It doesn’t stop with knowledge and skills specifically around abuse: sex education has even been linked to improved sense of control and safety felt by children, and increased positive feelings about their bodies. Think about it, when young people have literacy around their bodies—they know what to call their body parts and how they work, the words for their body parts aren’t treated like dirty words, and their questions and curiosity aren’t met with discomfort or disgust—they will be more comfortable in their own skin, more able to set and hold their own boundaries, and more empathetic to respect others.
Throughout the evolution of child abuse awareness month, a pinwheel symbol was adopted to emphasize the need for awareness and prevention before abuse and neglect happens. It is essential that we recognize sex education as a vital part of this prevention. When we partner as caregivers and educators to give children needed information about their bodies, their boundaries, and their rights, we ensure the best possible future for them.
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About the Author
Hallie Cohen is YWCA’s Training and Prevention Coordinator and sex educator. She has spent years facilitating abuse prevention programming. Her work has evolved to expanding into both facilitating comprehensive sex ed and supporting school districts in implementing this vital education themselves.