What is the problem with teaching children the correct names for genitalia?   3 comments

Let’s admit it, there is a national squeamishness about using the correct names for sexual parts of the body. At the doctors, many people would rather point to their genitals and say ‘I’ve got a problem down there’ than use the correct medical names. I wonder how common it is for adults to have never used the correct names for genitalia with their sexual partner? So I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked to discover recently, that the version of Anne Frank’s diary that I read as a teenager was actually censored to take out the bits where Anne writes about her experience of body changes and her genitals.  Frankness about her body came naturally to Anne, and it comes naturally to small children until they are taught otherwise.

The need for a more honest and open culture about sex and relationships is clearly explained in the new government ‘Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England’, but sadly this ambition is not mirrored in the latest version of the National Curriculum science. The proposed curriculum for lower primary school science requires that children learn to name the main parts of the body, and gives a suggested list of body parts which does not include genitalia. And yet the genitalia are possibly the only parts of the body that children cannot yet name by this age.

The British are not short of words to describe their ‘crown jewels’. Ironically there is an abundance of slang words for penis, testicles, vagina, vulva and breasts. 

When I was teaching sex and relationships education for Brook in Birmingham I discovered what a vast selection of words for sexual body parts young teens have at their disposal. A favourite activity of mine was to ask pupils to work silently, walking round the classroom from table to table and writing down slang words that they have heard for ‘penis’, ‘vagina’ etc. One of the aims of the activity was to enable pupils to move beyond their embarrassment and to pre-empt the possibility of ribaldry spoiling the lesson.  Without exception I found pupils handled this activity well and it led to more mature and giggle-free discussion.  Pupils found it interesting to notice that many of the slang words for penis were weapons or in some way aggressive or powerful e.g. ‘sword’ and ‘snake’, whereas the slang words for vagina and vulva were often derogatory or at best passive e.g. ‘gash’.

Further study of the British (and international) slang vocabulary for sexual organs might be instructive. For example is a high volume of slang correlated with higher levels of embarrassment about genitalia… and less sex education?

I am not against slang words, and families shouldn’t feel they have to stop using words like ‘willy’ and ‘front-bottom’ at home. The problem is that failure to teach children to name the genitalia gives out a powerful message to children: a sense of shame about their bodies. And shame breeds silence and sometimes pain, as this parent explains in a comment on a Mumsnet discussion forum in March 2013.

“So we’re OK to teach children that they have knees, ears and toes but forbidden to teach them penis, testicles and labia? It’s just some other bits of their body isn’t it? And quite important bits they learn the proper names for in case of (god forbid) them ever having to explain that those bits hurt or have been touched inappropriately etc.”

Ofsted have made it very clear that the failure of schools to teach children correct names for sexual body parts is a safeguarding issue. The words for genitalia are building blocks for understanding the difference between boys and girls, learning about normal bodily functions and hygiene, puberty, and later, about sexual health. It is also vital for any learning about physical boundaries and privacy, about what kind of physical contact is acceptable and unacceptable. When schools teach this well it is done in a matter of fact and simple way, for example an outline drawing of the human body is labeled and a set list of vocabulary (shared with parents) is taught and ticked off. This is revisited in future years so that the list can be added and pupils’ questions answered. NSPCC have recently launched their very useful and practical ‘Underwear rule’ campaign, which explains how parents, carers and schools can all play their part in educating children about their bodies and boundaries.

In contrast, pornography doesn’t come with educational sub-titles, bits to label and a vocabulary list that can be shared with parents. If we fail to overcome our squeamishness, children may well first learn about penis and vagina by being confronted by easily accessed and highly sexualized images. The contrast with a line drawing of the human body is surely obvious.

It is our responsibility as adults to safeguard children, and I believe we will look back with deep regret if we lose this opportunity in 2013 for a new National Curriculum that can guarantee that all children learn correct names for genitalia in primary science.

Objections to the National Curriculum proposals are made clear in a letter published in The Daily Telegraph (19 July 2013) entitled ‘Naming of parts’.  The letter warns that the current proposals “will perpetuate shame, and brings the risk of children not having the language to understand their bodies or to recognise and report sexual abuse”. Signatories to the letter include Hilary Eldridge, Chief Executive of child protection experts the Lucy Faithful Foundation and Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mother’s Union who is also the Government appointed Independent Reviewer of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood.  

Public consultation on the final draft of the National Curriculum closes at 5pm on 8 August 2013. The Sex Education Forum has published their response.

Information about how to send your response is available from the Department for Education.   

Lucy Emmerson, 6 August 2013


3 responses to “What is the problem with teaching children the correct names for genitalia?

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  1. I entirely agree with you Lucy. Its almost unbeliveable at just how bad we deal with this issue in general let alone when it comes to teaching children. I would, as always, be interested to know how they intend dealing with teaching sex and relationships with young LGBT children and young people, rather than just sex for procreation for heterosexuals.

  2. Pingback: Using the “proper words” for body parts- a gendered issue? | SexEdUKation

  3. I agree and, as a family, we ensured our children knew the correct words from the start. Where I am concerned is how the quality of any teaching that becomes mandatory will be controlled. Our primary school uses the Living & Growing resource by Channel 4. This goes way beyond the current (and proposed) recommendations for age appropriate SRE. I have many issues with it, the main one being a video of an animated man and woman having sexual intercourse – not an issue in itself but the scene includes them chasing around the bedroom with a feather and shows both the missionary and woman on top positions; all with the voice over of a young boy saying ‘doesn’t it look fun’…now I’m no prude but I’m not sure it’s necessary for our 9 year olds to see that! On the subject of labelling they include clitoris for year 5 children, not just the label but a brief description too. Hence I had my 9 year old daughter ask this question this year ‘mum, what is a clitoris and why does it sometimes feel nice?’ She had also asked her teacher this question. Her teacher who is 25 and untrained in how to deliver SRE, untrained in how to spot potential cases of sexual abuse and frankly unable to ensure that the emotional needs of 30 individual children are met following the viewing of this type of material. Speaking with my other hat, as a professional supporting survivors of childhood sex abuse, there is a huge risk that vulnerable children will be exposed to confusing messages about the enjoyment of sexual activity. I strongly believe that all the current primary teaching materials should be banned, as part of this overhaul, and that there are some minimum standards around the training of specialist teachers and the inclusion of parents in the subject as best practice principles. I can understand your concern that some schools do not go far enough…I would also like to see the schools that go too far with age in appropriate materials reigned in.

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