When I was in grade school, I spent a year of my life distressed over the possibility that I could be pregnant, all because a boy saw my underpants and a friend of mine told me that that’s how babies were made.
My psychosomatic pregnancy scare has influenced the approach I take when teaching my own kids about sex. Since preschool, my kids have known that boys have penises, not “wee-wees,” and that girls have vaginas, not “front-butts.” They also learned that babies are made when penises enter vaginas, not when 10-year-old boys sneak a peek at your underwear.
I prided myself in raising anatomically enlightened children, confident that I was teaching them everything they needed to know before their misinformed friends could get to them.
That is, until we saw NEMO.
No, I don’t mean the animated movie, I mean the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam.
I took my kids to NEMO this summer as a well-deserved, kid-friendly break from days of museums and cathedrals. We spent hours playing with their interactive science exhibits and hands-on laboratory, and entirely too much time attempting to create the world’s largest bubble in the bubble-making area.
As a grand finale to our day, we decided to hit the “Humania” level on the fourth floor. When we got to the top of the stairs, even this progressive, liberal mom was a little shocked at what I saw.
To my left, there was a huge, illuminated sign, mostly written in Dutch, but I could easily make out the words, “Teen Facts” and “Let’s Talk About Sex.” High up to my right, there was another “Let’s Talk About Sex” sign, this one accompanied by a sexy black-and-white photo of a couple who appeared to be doing much more than just talking about sex.
I then turned around to find my 8-year-old son, who is up for any interactive game, maneuvering a giant tongue in the “French Kiss” exhibit. He soon lost interest since it didn’t include any flashing lights or loud noise, and because “kissing is gross.”
All in all, these displays were a little surprising, but nothing more scandalous than stuff our kids see on magazine covers in the grocery store checkout line.
But wait. What’s that in the corner?
That’s when I noticed the exhibit that made me post this to Facebook.
Off in the back corner of the exhibit, showcased on three brightly lit shelves in a cherry-red display cabinet, were dozens of wooden modeling figures (basically faceless, hairless, wooden figures, like if IKEA made Barbie dolls) posed in more sexual positions than this 45-year-old mother of two knew existed.
Did we take a wrong turn at the levers and pulleys exhibit and end up in Amsterdam’s Red Light District?
Should we have all been carded on our way to the fourth floor?
Has IKEA started a line of sex dolls?
Since I wasn’t completely sure that my 8-year-old was supposed to be on this floor, we did not pass through the guarded entrance to see the Ikea-style wooden Kama Sutra orgy close up, but if we had, then I would have noticed that across from the wall of RIBBAFORYOURPLEASURE dolls was a peep show.
I’m dying to know what is included in the peep show and might have to make a trip back to Amsterdam just to find out. Until then, I’ll have to settle for the NEMO website description: “There are always things you want to know but don’t dare to ask. At this peepshow, you can learn a lot about sex and sexuality without prying eyes or people who think they know better.”
With all of this pro-sex information being made available to kids, right out in the open at a kids’ science center no less, some Americans may assume that Dutch kids are at risk for a life full of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
It’s just the opposite.
According to Peggy Orenstein’s article in the LA Times titled, Worried About Your Teenage Daughter? Move to the Netherlands, “While we in the United States have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, they have among the lowest. Our teen birth rate is eight times higher than theirs, and our teen abortion rate is 1.7 times higher.”
That is a huge difference.
Orenstein continues to explain that not long ago, the Netherlands had an approach to sex education that was similar to what we see in the U.S. today. In fact, they only started to shift within the past 20 years.
“By the 1990s, when Americans were shoveling millions into the maw of useless abstinence-only education, Dutch teachers (and parents) were busy discussing the positive aspects of sex and relationships, as well as anatomy, reproduction, disease prevention, contraception and abortion. They emphasized respect for self and others in intimate encounters, and openly addressed masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality and orgasm,” Orenstein writes.
For many in the U.S., sex education in schools is a taboo subject. They still prefer to cling to the unfounded notion that information will lead to promiscuity versus the verified data showing that information leads to safety.
For other parents, like me, who would love to see a more open and positive approach to sex education in schools, it’s hard to know what’s being taught and, even more, what we can do to help encourage more progressive programs in our school district.
In the research that I’ve done investigating this topic for my own kids, I’ve come across a helpful site that can easily direct you to sex education laws specific to your state as well as help you research the policies of your school district and school. There’s even a handy toolkit that you can download to help guide you through the process and keep all of your information in one place. The download also includes a list of talking points to help you get discussions started.
For me, the answer to “Why sex ed?” is easy. I want our kids to be armed with the information to keep them safe and healthy throughout their childhood and adulthood.
Take it from the woman who once thought you could get pregnant from someone seeing your underwear: A little information goes a long way.