How much should kids know about sex, and at what age? Nickie Shobeiry discusses how growing up in uber liberal Denmark to Iranian parents, and then moving to England, was a bit of a sex-ed mindfuck.
I was raised in Denmark in the 90s, to Iranian immigrant parents. As you probably know, these two cultures view sex in very different ways. By the age of six, attending school in Copenhagen, I’d already learned what went where (and why, and how), much to my parents’ surprise. It was a very eye-opening childhood. But at age eight I moved to England—a country with yet another completely different take on sexuality.
In England, not only did I suddenly have to call teachers ‘sir’ or ‘miss’, but it would be a whole two years before my classmates and I got any form of sex-ed. Even then, boys and girls were separated, and all we learnt about was periods. It’s worth mentioning that it was a religious school, and my first time brushing shoulders with Christianity. Suffice to say, in my 22 years, I’ve seen first-hand what a variety of cultures view as an appropriate level of sex education.
Now, clearly, sex-ed is important. Whether it comes from teachers, family or friends – who are hopefully older and/or wiser than you – it’s imperative to know the ins and outs of your body. Yet, the question looms – how much is too much information, and at what age should we start dealing out the facts?
Despite being raised with a culture that might dictate otherwise, my Iranian parents never withheld information from me. Growing up, I was held on a tighter leash than my friends, but if I had a question, my parents would answer it. But that’s not to say my dear parents weren’t shocked by the little things in Denmark, like being able to rent movies with titles like The Truth About Sex. Still, one of my dad’s favorite stories about Denmark is about the day they were stopped by two Danish kids – a boy and a girl – on the street in our neighborhood.
“Are you bread bun-ing her?” The boy asked my dad about my mom, and then pointed to the girl beside him, “because I’m bread bun-ing her.”
‘Bread bun’ in Danish is ‘bolle’, which is equivalent to the British ‘shag’. To say my parents were shocked would be an understatement.
Thanks to little scenarios like that one, my first few years on this earth were sprinkled with unabashed truth-telling. However, hopping across the sea to England, the story changed. While I counted myself a liberated individual, somewhere along the way, I may have become somewhat more reserved than if I’d stayed in Denmark. This realization didn’t happen until I returned to Denmark last summer, where my cousin took me to the ARoS art museum. The building had a towering poster displayed outside: a print of a painting of woman urinating into a wine glass. Later inside, while contemplating a photograph of a dead sheep giving birth, a class filed past me. The kids, around 10-years old, were pointing up at the carcass.
I admit, I was surprised. Watching the kids – a sea of back-packs – I realized they must have seen the poster outside. Phrases like ‘trauma’ and ‘childhood therapy’ rattled around my brain, until my cousin poked me in the ribs.
“You grew up here, remember?”
Of course, she was right. While I don’t recall erotic images of wine glasses full or urine, I do recall flipping through a sex-ed book at age six. That day, I had found Per Holm Knudsen’s ‘How a Baby is Made’ abandoned in the school yard. Frank illustrations of a man and woman – both with alarmingly yellow skin – explained everything I needed to know.
Fast-forward almost two decades, and I was sitting in my friend Kelly’s kitchen. Kelly and I went to school together in England, enduring the same awkward sex-ed class at age 14. Leaning against her kitchen counter, I told her about reading Knudsen’s book at age six. Kelly was suitably shocked – and, strangely, so was I.
“From the inside, we [Danes] don’t tend to think we have a very liberal system. We tend to think that we have a very practical and pragmatic approach to the fact that young people do start having sexual relations somewhere in their teens.”
When my parents and I first moved to England, we had a Danish family friend, Anne. During one dinner, she asked an English guest what was most surprising about Denmark. Turns out he’d lived in Copenhagen as a teenager and, at 15, had met a girl there. He visited her house, and her parents allowed them to sleep in the same room. He laughed, saying this wouldn’t have happened at home. Everyone at the table – English, Iranian, Danish, Egyptian, Italian, agreed – Danes were just more ‘open’.
Now, had Susan Rose been present (sociology professor at Dickinson College), she’d have argued that it’s not as simple as that. In her paper, ‘Going Too Far? Sex, Sin and Social Policy’, Rose said it’s not that Danes are ‘more open’ by nature. Rather, in Denmark, she writes, debates about sexuality are rooted in different religious, political and economic orientations than they are in America (or England – or Iran). According to Rose, in Denmark, “the rights of adolescents to sexual information are framed within the context of social democracy.” And to quote Nell Rasmussen again, “From the inside, we [Danes] don’t tend to think we have a very liberal system. We tend to think that we have a very practical and pragmatic approach to the fact that young people do start having sexual relations somewhere in their teens.”
I was in Copenhagen during the 2015 general elections, and heard many debates about the country’s right-shifting views. While at a bar one night, a woman – also in her 20s – told me how, when she was 11, it was fine to be shown “how people have sex” (in her case, her teacher showed them an animation). Her sister, who had just turned 11, was shocked at the idea. “It’s amazing how much changes in a decade,” the woman said.
I took a sip of my drink. Perhaps Denmark wasn’t quite as freewheeling as my Knudsen-tinted glasses were telling me. The woman continued to explain that ‘slut shaming’ was still a thing, despite the country being world-renowned for gender equality. Yet, it remains, from as early as 1970, sex education became compulsory in Denmark. Schools have an entire week (‘Week Six’ – ‘six’ sounding like ‘sex’ in Danish) dedicated to sexual health, from basic biology to what a healthy relationship looks like. While some may argue this encourages teens to hop into bed, Denmark actually has a low rate of teen pregnancy – significantly lower than England and America – as well as lower rates of abortions and STIs.
What about the UK? It’s a progressive society with freedom of sexual choice, and of education (I have memories of that sex-ed class at age 14 to prove it). Yet, unlike Denmark, there is no ‘Week 6’. As published in The Telegraph, in the UK, sex education is currently mandatory from age 11, but only in schools that must follow the national curriculum. Academies – ‘which make up the majority of secondary schools’ – aren’t obligated to do the same. And also, parents have permission to pull their kids out of sex-ed classes if they choose. (It’s argued the reason for this might be religious; for example, Tower Hamlets of East London has the highest Muslim population in England, with over 40 mosques in the area. While the UK might not be known as a very religious nation, it is home to many different cultures and, obviously, one standard form of sex education might not be everybody’s cup of tea.)
So should the UK follow in Denmark’s footsteps despite this, and put more focus on sex-ed? Although it’s naïve to think one size fits all, it’s also naïve to think you can hide someone’s body from them. Isn’t it better to equip our kids with the right knowledge? Personally, I’m grateful to have grown up with parents and teachers who were blunt from the get-go. Does that mean I’d take my (hypothetical) child to a Claus Carstensen exhibit, to see paintings of women urinating in wine glasses? God know – but if they had any questions, I’d make like 90’s Denmark and whip out Per Holm Knudsen.
Nickie Shobeiry a freelance journalist based in London.
Main photo by Simon Edward Johns.