THE current controversy about the B.B.C. filmstrip for use in primary schools reveals how widespread is the misunderstanding of the real nature of sex education. For many people sex education consists solely of telling children what are called "the facts of life."
It is not difficult to picture the embarrassment which accompanied those occasions on which a parent attempted to fulfil his or her duty by instructing the adolescent child who probably already knew more than the parent suspected.. Treating this aspect of human relationship in isolation from the rest makes it likely that the person so instructed will always see sex as something apart and will be unable to accept it as an expression of the relationship between two people.
The confusion that reigns is aggravated by the fact that we have only one word for two very different things. Sex in the broader sense indicates the entire range of attributes which makes a man a man and a woman a woman. We are not "neuter" human beings to which male or female reproductive organs are attached. Male and female created he them (Gen. 1, 27). We are men or we are women, the difference between us running through the entirety of our being.
Our sex is determined at the moment of our conception and. barring accidents of development, under the influence of both heredity and environment we shall go on to acquire all the physical and psychological characteristics appropriate to the sex to which we belong. Sex in the narrower sense of the word refers only to the reproductive organs and their function and the term sex education is often wrongly taken to mean instructing children and adolescents in this aspect alone.
Real sex education sets out to prepare a boy for his role in life as a man and a girl for hers as a woman. This involves his or her work, recreations, ambitions, aspirations and responsibilities. It helps a child towards that maturity of development that will make him fully a man and her fully a woman.
Within this broader preparation for his or her role as a man or as a woman the knowledge of tile function and proper use of the reproductive organs will have its place, but it is not the whole story.
Sex education in the narrow sense without sex education in the broader sense is a disaster; equally sex education in the broader sense without sex education in the narrow sense is so incomplete as to destroy much of the value of what has been done in the broader context. Well-balanced sex education will prepare boys and girls to be men and. women in every aspect of their lives including the more narrowly sexual, From this certain things follow. Firstly, sex education does not take place on one occasion; it is not an event; it is an ongoing process throughout life. Could anything be more crude or more liable to give a distorted picture of God's plan than the single talk at puberty on the narrow aspects of sex?
Indeed, Schofield's study, "The Sexual Behaviour of Young People," discovered that if parents had not instructed their children by the time they were 12 or 13 years of age they were unlikely ever to do so. Probably this is something to be thankful for as the parent who has done nothing to prepare the child in its earlier years is likely to do more harm than good by instructing it at puberty.
Sex education begins in infancy with the different attitudes we adopt towards baby boys and baby girls, the names we give them, the way we dress them and the toys we buy them. Into this broad pattern fits the simple but truthful answer to children's questions which pop up from time to time when the cat is having kittens or mother another baby or when the conception and birth of Our Lord is being talked about.
This process goes on through childhood and adolescence and indeed beyond for it should not be forgotten that we never cease to learn about our role in life. As young adults single or mar ried, in middle age and in later life we are always learning more about our role in life and how to conduct our relationships with others.
The second thing which follows from a proper view of sex education is that it does not occur in one place. The statement that the place for sex instruction is in the home shows a serious misunderstanding of the real nature of what sex education is all about. Whether it be the broader or the narrower aspect of sex education which is being considered, it should take place in the home. in the school, in the youth club or indeed in any place in which children and young people learn more about their role in life, how to conduct themselves and how to behave towards others.
The third thing which follows is that sex instruction does not take place in one subject. Whether it be history or geography, religion or English literature, biology or physical education, sex instruction will be going on.
Likewise in the home, whether it be the newlyexpected baby, or the plight of the unmarried girl next door who is pregnant, or something read in the paper or seen on television, sex instruction will be going on., At times specific attention will certainly be directed towards the narrower aspect of sex, as at a certain stage in the biology course or when parents have reason to think it is necessary at hOme, but always it will be part of the general on-going preparation for the full Christian adult life.
In this context aids such as the B.B.C. film-strips clearly have a place. When in the ongoing process of a wider sex education, the time has come to give more attention to sex in its narrower aspects, it is a great advantage to have the aid of wellprepared illustrative material. To show such material as an isolated event, thinking there by to discharge our responsibility to the children, would be mistaken indeed. But to use well-prepared material as part of a broad programme of education is far better than fumbling along with poor illustrations and inadequate words. Objection has been raised that the word love is never mentioned in the commentary accompanying the film strip. This objection reflects the misunderstanding both of children and the way to educate them in this aspect of their lives. The feelings and attitudes of an adult are being projected on to the child, feelings which the child does not as yet have.
Until the child has begun to experience the first stirrings of sexual desire, he will not relate love to the physical embrace of man and woman. He can learn about the latter in an unembarrassed way as a simple fact of biology. If he has not already been made to feel embarrassed by the body and its functions by faulty training in his earlier years, he will accept the fact of intercourse in a simple straightforward manner. Later, when he reaches adolescence he will assimilate to this knowledge with which he feels comfortable, the further knowledge of the emotional significance of it all.
In this way he will grow steadily in knowledge at the appropriate stages of his life without adult knowledge and attitudes being forced upon him before he is ready to cope with them.
What is important is that the illustrations used and the commentary given should convey the impression of tenderness and care. If they do this, then nothing need be said directly about love at this stage. One of the difficulties about visual material is that as much is in the eye of the beholder as is on the paper, canvas or screen. But certainly in the B.B.C. filmstrip the embrace seems gentle and tender and the commentary is quiet and reassuring.
In all this Catholics should surely be at an advantage. Did they not say regularly as water was mingled with wine "Oh God who didst wonderfully fashion the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restore it." Our nature is indeed wonderful and we should not be ashamed of it, nor of the proper portrayal of it, for it is God's handiwork, and it is this we are telling children about in sex instruction.