by Nadiah Mohajir
In her guest blog piece, Sobia Ali-Faisal boldly claimed that Muslim youth need sex education. Why? Because Muslim youth are having sex. According to her research more than half of those she surveyed reported having sex before marriage. The Family & Youth Institute has found similar percentages, with 53.8% of never-married Muslim college students reported having sex.
The data is loud and clear. It’s time for us to make a serious commitment to offering Muslim youth sex education programming that addresses their needs. Muslim girls and boys are expected to abstain from premarital sex and alcohol and substance consumption, without any additional context or preparing them with decision-making skills. In other words, there is often no emphasis on developing critical thinking and decision-making skills or a healthy self-concept in relation to the body, sexuality, and spirituality. Outside of the home, in addition to their natural curiosity, these same young people are constantly bombarded with sexual images, peer pressure, and messages encouraging them to have sex, and actively partake in romantic relationships.
These cultural factors are unavoidable, but when we avoid having conversations about sexuality, young people will go elsewhere to find out about sexual health. The idea that talking about sexuality or body literacy is immodest or that it should take place only between married couples leads young men and women to find out about sexuality from friends, magazines, online, or even pornography. Instead, we should create safe, culturally sensitive spaces for young people of faith to ask questions and get information that is consistent with their beliefs. We are pleased to introduce to you our latest guide, “Let’s Talk about Sex: A Muslim Parent’s Guide to Having “the Talk” with their Kids,” a resource for parents who want to begin these important conversations with their children. A must read for all parents, this guide offers the latest research, background information, tips, conversation starters, and even scripts that parents can use when bringing up these sensitive topics with their kids. Below, I address some concerns and FAQs that I have received from parents about letting their kids have access to sex education and why this guide will be so useful to them as they think about this next phase of their child’s life.
But doesn’t sex education encourage teens to have sex and be promiscuous?
There is a common misunderstood notion that teaching youth about sexuality, in a comprehensive way that includes information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy may lead to increased promiscuity and premature sexual activity. Research actually shows the opposite. A 2010 Guttmacher Policy Review states that there is no evidence that comprehensive sex education programs lead to increased rates of sexual activity and earlier initiation. Rather, it may have the opposite effect: empowering young people with the tools to delay sex and make more informed decisions. Perhaps the most compelling reasons for parents to talk to their kids about sex is that it is actually protective in nature. Recent research shows that parents have a great influence on their teens’ sexual behaviors when they talk to their teens about sex: teens are more likely to use condoms and birth control when they have sex. Additionally, other studies indicate that children who are comfortable talking about sex are actually more likely to delay sexual activity and be older when they first have intercourse. In fact, a 2012 survey by the Office of Adolescent Health at the Department of Health and Human Services indicated that “almost 9 in 10 teens (87) said that it would be much easier to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.”
What about current sex education programs? Aren’t those enough?
Current efforts in sex education are missing the mark. A 2004 study indicates that Muslim youth feel frustrated with sex education programming at public schools because it does not take into account their cultural and religious worldview, and instead speaks to students as if sexual activity is predetermined. At the same time, they expressed religious programming does the exact opposite: it assumes that information about sex and sexuality is not relevant to youth because sexual activity shouldn’t be taking place anyway. As such, typically programming at religious institutions exclude a great deal of important information – both on anatomy and other aspects of sexual relationships. For example, the programming barely focus on topics such as pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), self-esteem, healthy relationships, and decision-making.
But I don’t want the school to teach my kid values and morality about sex.
Most school-based programs are not values-based. They may cover topics such as masturbation, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT), and premarital sex that often causes many religious and conservative parents discomfort. Despite parents’ beliefs otherwise, however, these topics are objectively and to facilitate inclusivity and tolerance. As such, because of the sheer diversity of racial, ethnic and religious background in schools, values and morality about sex and sexuality are not usually taught within the school sex education program. If these are important conversations for parents to have, which they should be, it is encouraged to continue the conversation at home.
What happens if youth do not get sex education?
A limited focus on sexual education is disconcerting from both a public health and faith-based perspective: Muslim youth are left unprepared to deal with issues of reproductive and sexual health, and consequently, may:
- Be unprepared for the major changes their bodies are undergoing, which can lead to confusion, curiosity and/or exploration;
- Be unequipped to make informed decisions without better understanding of sexual health, sexual experimentation, and its consequences;
- Seek out (mis)information in pornographic magazines, internet sites, and erotic visual programs, or to rely on information picked up from peers at school or work, or from obscene jokes, ultimately perpetuating myths, misinformation, and misunderstandings as well as unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sexuality;
- Rely on debunked cultural traditions, myths, and practices;
- Be unequipped to identify abuse and how to seek help;
- have unhealthy sex in life/marriage; and
- Giving in to pressures to engage in sexual activity in order to fit in, even if one is not ready.
The lack of open dialogue and education about sexual health in the Muslim community leads to negative health outcomes, sexual experimentation, sexual violence and marital challenges in the community. If young people are not informed about their bodies and healthy relationships, they are not equipped to identify sexual health problems or when they are being abused, and they don’t know where to get help.
But I’m still not comfortable with the school teaching my kid this information. I want to teach him/her myself. Is this possible?
Parents should absolutely be involved in their children’s sex education. Most schools have parent sessions before beginning the unit so that parents can be familiar with what their child will be learning. Additionally, because of time constraints, schools may not have enough time to cover important topics such as peer pressure, decision-making, values, and ethics. They may simply introduce these topics. This is the perfect opportunity for parents to continue the conversation and talk about expectations, decision making, values and peer pressure.
While parents can absolutely opt-out of school-based sex education programs and replace that education with their own information, it is something that we do not recommend. The reality is many parents don’t have the adequate resources to do so: they may not have a solid, accurate foundation of sexual health information themselves, or they may not have the time or training to navigate the difficult and sensitive topics our youth are dealing with today. The ideal sex education program is that which students attend through school, and continue that education at home with their parents. This will ensure that they are getting the solid foundation of accurate sexual health information they need, as well as the opportunity to relate that information to their specific cultural and religious context.
Sex education for ALL Muslim youth is long overdue. There are many great programs already out there, so we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We just have use those programs as a foundation to create something that fits the needs of our diverse community. Additionally, there is no time like the present to begin these conversations at home, and we hope that you find our parent’s guide useful in guiding that discussion.