Some pundits say that talking with little kids about sex and gender primes them to be taken advantage of. Sex-ed researchers say that the opposite is true.
The grooming charges lump together concerns that kids are being introduced too early to sexually explicit material, to the existence of transgender people, and to non-heterosexual sexual orientations. In March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a measure that discourages teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation in classrooms. Versions of the measure have been proposed in at least a dozen other states. Referring to the bill, DeSantis’s spokesperson Christina Pushaw tweeted, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” A pastor even organized an “anti-grooming” rally at Disney’s headquarters in California.
This type of rhetoric is damaging in its own right. As the commentator David French writes in his newsletter, “Throwing around accusations of pedophilia, sympathy for pedophilia, grooming, or sympathy for grooming is a recipe for threats and violence”—an assessment that some historians endorse. This latest pedophilia panic overlaps with the false beliefs of the QAnon movement, which fueled the Pizzagate incident in 2016.
But bills such as Florida’s are also likely to have a chilling effect on comprehensive sexual education in schools, with deleterious effects. Comprehensive sex ed doesn’t just help prevent bullying; it helps kids have healthier relationships of all kinds, improves their communication skills, and even boosts their media literacy. Compared with abstinence-only sex education or no sex education at all, comprehensive sex ed helps reduce teen pregnancy rates. One meta-analysis found that European countries, many of which offer comprehensive, mandatory sex ed, including for young children, tend to have the lowest rates of child sexual abuse in the world. Sex education is “the exact opposite” of grooming, says Nora Gelperin, the director of sexuality education at Advocates for Youth, a sex-ed nonprofit. “Sex education, even when started in the earliest grades, has shown to be protective for kids, especially around child sexual abuse.”
A 2020 study that examined three decades of research on sex education found that comprehensive sex ed that begins in elementary school can help prevent child sex abuse, among other benefits. “Stranger danger”–type language isn’t recommended these days; about 93 percent of child sexual-abuse victims know their abusers. Instead, these programs help children identify the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching, the difference between “tattling” and keeping unsafe secrets, and how to identify abusive situations. In other words, sex ed isn’t grooming—it helps protect kids from grooming.
Modern sex ed also seems to give kids a sense of empowerment, including by teaching them the correct names for their own genitals. “Predators are less likely to select a child who can accurately talk about those body parts,” Gelperin says, “than a child that is ignorant of what those body parts are actually called.” It also makes kids less likely to victimize one another: One program for eighth graders, called Safe Dates, was associated with lower rates of physical and sexual dating violence four years later, compared with a control group.
Experts recommend starting sex education as early as kindergarten and teaching it the way you would math. Five-year-olds don’t tend to learn geometry, but they do learn about numbers and shapes. Similarly, experts say kindergartners don’t need to be told about, for example, orgasms, but they are encouraged to understand what their body parts are and how to protect themselves from unwanted touching.
One of the best-regarded American sex-ed curricula is “Rights, Respect, and Responsibility,” or the “3Rs,” developed by Advocates for Youth and available for free online. For kindergartners and first graders, the lessons focus on preventing bullying, setting boundaries about touching, and learning what types of things make babies (elephants, but not pizza). The most explicit section covers the proper names of genitalia, including an explanation that most girls have a “hole” called “the vagina that is used when a female has a baby.” The use of correct anatomical terms is meant to ensure that kids are understood if they ever report abuse. But also, “this is your body and you have a right to know what the different parts are called,” the curriculum explains.
The first-grade lesson plans also include a section about gender identity, in which teachers are encouraged to say something like “You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts. You might feel like you’re a girl even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘boy’ parts. And you might not feel like you’re a boy or a girl, but you’re a little bit of both. No matter how you feel, you’re perfectly normal!”
Though this message does not exactly comport with a socially conservative worldview, it hardly amounts to “grooming” children to be molested by pedophiles. The argument for providing information on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school is that children are likely to encounter these concepts in the wild. Between 2 million and 4 million American children are being raised by a non-straight parent. Some children might either be transgender themselves or have a parent who is. Advocates of this type of curriculum say these concepts can be explained more accurately in school, and help make kids who are not straight or cisgender feel welcomed.
But just because the “3Rs” curriculum is recommended doesn’t mean it gets taught. Far from it: Sex ed, like all lesson plans, varies dramatically by school district, and usually reflects the values of the surrounding community. For example, Texas, which has more children than almost any other state, does not require high schools to teach sex ed. As of 2017, most Texas schools districts took an abstinence-only approach to sex ed, and though the state has recently introduced some discussion of contraceptives in middle school, abstinence must be emphasized. Instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation is not currently offered in Florida from kindergarten to third grade, the ages targeted by the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Most European countries do provide comprehensive sex ed in every school, however. Experts link Europeans’ superior sexual-health outcomes—lower teen pregnancy rates, lower rates of sexual abuse, and lower STD rates among young people—to better, earlier sex ed. In Western Europe, sex ed tends to be mandatory and blunt, and start before kindergarten; it’s like the “3Rs,” but more graphic.
In the Netherlands, sex ed begins before many kids can read. “From age 5, children are taught about reproduction, about pregnancy and birth of a baby,” says Elsbeth Reitzema, the sexuality-education program officer at Rutgers, a Dutch nonprofit that helps run the country’s sex-ed programs. “They also learn the main physical differences between boys and girls, about the genitals and their functions. By the end of primary school, children have learned about reproduction, pregnancy, and birth. They know that a woman, if she is fertile, can become pregnant through sex in the manner of penis-in-vagina sex.” They also learn about being intersex, transgender, and nonbinary. When they’re 11, kids learn about masturbation.
One popular Dutch sex-ed curriculum explains to fourth graders that “the clitoris is a very sensitive place. Touching it can give a nice feeling,” according to Beyond Birds and Bees, a 2018 book in part about the Dutch approach to sex ed by Bonnie Rough, who has written on the same topic for The Atlantic. “It is not customary for parents to take their children out of the lesson,” Reitzema told me. “Should parents object to the lessons, then the school will explain what the content of the lessons is. This usually removes the parents’ resistance to the lessons.”
In Sweden’s mandatory sex-ed program, 7-to-9-year-olds learn “about all body parts, and discuss gender,” Hans Olsson, the country’s senior adviser on sexuality education, told me. “School has a duty to counteract limiting gender patterns, already at [the] preschool level.” Also in preschool, kids learn about bodily integrity and name their sexual organs. Rather than the proper terminology, though, Swedish kids use snopp, which is like “willy,” and snippa. (“Don’t know the equivalent word in English,” Olsson said.) Starting in fourth grade, Swedish kids learn about LGBTQ issues.
Sara Zaske, the author of the German comparative-parenting book Achtung Baby, told me that her 7-year-old daughter’s class in Berlin read the children’s book Mummy Laid an Egg without asking parents’ permission first. The picture book, which was originally published in English, features cartoon drawings of “Daddy’s tube” and “Mummy’s hole,” along with the ways “mummies and daddies fit together.” Unlike in the United States, Zaske writes in her book, “German kids learn much more about sex than conception.” German schools cover STD prevention, yes, but also masturbation, orgasms, and homosexuality. Zaske quotes one doctor in an article on the city of Berlin’s official website as saying, “Sex education cannot begin early enough.”
Rough and others don’t see these types of lessons as “giving children ideas” about sex and sexuality. After all, adults openly do things—drink alcohol, use the stove, drive—that kids can’t. Kids understand when an activity is for adults only. She and other advocates reject the notion that telling kids about different sexual orientations or gender identities “turns” kids gay or gender-nonconforming. “Teaching about the topics is not creating new LGBTQ students,” says Elizabeth Schroeder, a sexuality educator and co-author of the “3Rs” curriculum.
But most important, early sex ed opens up lines of communication between kids and responsible adults. “If we start giving off the impression that sex is a topic that when you ask me a question … that I’m going to start acting weird and funny and dishonest about it, they quickly pick up that this is something off-limits,” says Emily Rothman, a health-sciences professor at Boston University. “So they’re either gonna think, Well, I can go to my friends or I can go to the internet.” By which she means: to porn.
The larger point of this kind of instruction is what the Dutch call “sexual assertiveness”: “If somebody is saying or doing something that makes your body feel uncomfortable, you’ve been taught how to notice that and what to do next,” Rough told me. One aim of communicating freely about sex with a teacher or another trusted adult is the “development of a trusting, trustworthy relationship with a grown-up who has the child’s best interests at heart.”
Meanwhile, only a quarter of U.S. public schools report that students practice communication, decision making, goal setting, or refusal skills as part of sex ed, Rough writes in her book. Instead, some American children learn about sex through porn, through experimentation, or, tragically, from an abuser. Because so much of American sex education treats sexual activity as dangerous or shameful, kids who are victimized by adults may feel that they have to keep it secret. European children who learn about their body, and are warned about inappropriate touching, can better protect themselves. There, Rough writes, “those who prey on children can no longer benefit from their ignorance.”