Mike Sagar-Fenton: We must teach our children what they need to know
Male animals can sometimes be dangerous. That's not an excuse, just one of many facts we have to deal with as people, as parents, as teachers. We ride our primitive selves like a mahout on an elephant. Our biology still wants to run the show and anyone guiding children in their confusing adolescent years has to start from the basics.
They are simple enough. For males the easiest way of ensuring their inheritance is passed on is to impregnate as many women as they can grab. For them sex is a brief investment, hit-and-run, with no need for aftercare. For women the situation is the reverse – they have a limited number of eggs and face a huge change of circumstances following impregnation. Theirs is the greater gamble in any relationship, and they therefore have to be careful in their choice of partners and learn how best to defend themselves against unwanted sexual advances.
That's the game as it has always been played, the wired-in tension and fragile balance between the sexes which makes human societies possible but often fraught.
Evolution has devised many different templates for reproduction, ranging from fish who simply spray semen and ova simultaneously and then swim off for tea, to swans who reputedly mate for life and remain faithful to one partner. We're at the swan end of the spectrum, but nowhere near as stable.
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Boys and girls instinctively know this, whatever the mores of the time. Adolescent boys want sex as an end in itself, whoah I fancy her, thanks, goodbye. Their more important relationship is with other boys, where sexual conquests rate highly on the status ladder. Girls want a relationship however temporary or tentative, and are attracted to the personality as much as the body. Boys want sex all the time, girls want sex as part of something with – at least – possibilities.
The answer is simple too. The sharp edge of our biological heritage can only be gentled by intelligible thoughtful education, given at the right time. But that's where simplicity signs off. What kind of education? When?
Sex is always confusing. In my generation it was the great unspoken, reserved for grown-ups who'd drive us crazy with smiles and laughs and allusions to what we weren't allowed to know while school offered us lessons in flower pollination as if that explained everything. Now it's the other way around. Sex is everywhere, not just in the media but in home life where changes of partners and lack of privacy, let alone the Pandora's Box of the internet, makes it part of children's lives, a part they can't put into context without compassionate help at an early age. They need, starting from no later than say, eight, to be taught not just what goes where but the biological and emotional differences between the sexes, how they came about, why it's sometimes a problem, how other social animals cope, the place of chastity, the many phenomena of love and attraction that the pornography to which they're exposed will never explain.
Ironically the main opponent of this humane approach is religion, Christian or Muslim alike, parents who refuse to allow their children to learn what they badly need to know in 2013, substituting blind ignorance as their only protection. Parents can still withdraw their children from all secondary-age sex education lessons except basic human biology. Our education service responds with cowardice and minor tinkering. Our governments won't help.
It has to change. Children are targets, to exploitative adults and even more so to each other. Telling boys not to do it and girls not to get pregnant is not enough. Boys need to understand their own sexuality and respect why girls don't feel the same. Girls need all the support and reinforcement of their feelings and self-confidence they can get. Kids can't learn this on their own. If knowledge is denied ignorance will quickly fill the vacuum. We have to stop neglecting these issues and use our power and position to equip them with the knowledge and understanding – and reassurance – they so desperately need.