Although our definitions of sexuality are different from when we are children, adolescents, and adults, we are none-the-less sexual creatures throughout our lifespans. And throughout our lifespans, our health, happiness, and safety are dependent on us understanding sexuality. Understanding sexuality, as understanding anything else that matters, begins with learning words.
This paper is about the first ten sexual words children must learn for their health, happiness, and safety.
Sexuality can be defined as a form of communication, driven by intimacy, to achieve biological, psychological, and sociological fulfillment.
Intimacy and fulfillment are mostly based on a person’s age, whereas communication is based solely on how clear the mode of communication is. If communication is transparent, then it allows for intimacy and fulfillment. For children, transparent communication allows for emotional bonding with parents (intimacy) to achieve physical growth and development (biological fulfillment), self-esteem and identity (psychological fulfillment), and an understanding of social cues and relationships (sociological fulfillment). However, if communication is nontransparent, then these measures of children’s intimacy and fulfillment will be inhibited.
Denotative is not a Euphemism
Transparent verbal communication uses denotative words. Denotative words are literal and clear and need no context to be understood. For example, when describing the vulva, I use the word vulva. Nontransparent verbal communication uses euphemisms. Euphemisms “replace denotative words” with words that are symbolic, ambiguous, and needing a context to be understood. For example, when describing the vulva, I use the word cookie. Without a context, you cannot be sure I am describing the vulva or the vagina or a sugary snack or even a file stored on my computer.
Because children less than 12 years of age are in sensorimotor, preoperational, or concrete operational stages of cognitive development, which do not allow for abstract reasoning, children cannot understand the complex and implicit meanings of euphemisms, regardless of having a context. Therefore, teaching sexual euphemisms to children confuses them about sexuality. Which in-turn negatively affects their emotional, psychological, and physical development, and their understanding of self, relationships, and social mores.
Recently, one of my students shared a particularly sad story about how confusing, and in-fact, dangerous, sexual euphemisms can be to a child’s ability to communicate:
Almost every day after class, and before boarding the bus, an elementary schoolteacher had one of his students come up to him and say, “I don’t like to go home because my uncle touches my cookie and he keeps on doing it even though I tell him to stop.” Assuming the little girl’s uncle was stealing her snacks, the schoolteacher repeatedly reassured the little girl the uncle would eventually stop, if she kept on telling him to stop stealing her cookies. This went on for two months until the first parent-teacher conference of the schoolyear, during the conference with the little girl’s parents, the schoolteacher offhandly remarked, “I hope your daughter’s uncle has stopped stealing her cookies!” To which the parents replied in puzzlement, “What are you talking about, our daughter does not eat cookies, she has hypoglycemia, the only “cookie” she knows about is the word we taught her to describe her vulva.”
The most frequent reason why parents do not teach their children denotative words about sex is because parents want to keep their children “innocent.” The truth is sexual euphemisms do not keep children innocent. Sexual euphemisms make children ignorant. And ignorance deprives children of empowerment. Three facts put this loss of empowerment and its ramifications in context:
1. Sexual abuse, assault, and rape most likely occur during childhood.
2. Most sexually abused children cannot report the abuse until years afterward because they do not have the words to describe what happened to them.
3. Pedophiles are empowered by sexual euphemisms.
There is no debating it, children are empowered from learning sexual denotative words. This learning allows for emotional, psychological, and physical development; and it allows children to understand themselves, others, and relationships. What is up for debate, is what exact, age-appropriate, sexual denotative words children must learn first. With children’s health, happiness, and safety in-mind, I argue for the following ten words:
Clitoris, defined as a sensitive part of the vulva; whose primary purpose is for pleasure.
Consent, defined as voluntary, conscious, and empathic participation in sex, which can be withdrawn at any time; consent is the baseline for what is considered normal, acceptable, and healthy sexual behavior.
Gender, defined as the psychological and sociological representations of a person’s biological sex.
Nipples, defined as one of the bodies many erogenous zones; they are the small projections within the areolas in which the mammary ducts of female mammals terminate, and from which milk can be secreted.
Penis, defined as the most prominent external sex organ in males; the penis has three main functions: initiating orgasm, transporting semen outside of the body, and transporting urine outside of the body.
Sex, defined as one of the methods a person uses to gain pleasure and a means of biological reproduction.
Testicles, also called testes, are defined as the glands that produce the hormones: testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen; and the testicles produce sperm cells.
Uterus, also called womb, is defined as the female’s internal sex organ where offspring develop until birth.
Vagina, also called birth canal, is defined as a muscular canal that spans from the cervix to the introitus, it acts as a transport mechanism for sperm cells coming in, and menstrual fluid and babies going out.
Vulva, defined as the female’s external sex organs.
Not Done Yet
You are not going to let me off so easy, are you? I know what you are asking, “Of all the sexual denotative words we learn over our lifetimes, why must these ten come first?”
Fair question, before I answer it, let me point out one thing about the definitions of these sexual denotative words. The definitions are dense. That is, most of the definitions contain more sexual denotative words needing more definitions. The density of the definitions is by no accident, as it fosters (1) communication between the parent and child, and (2) further curiosity, learning, and understanding about sexuality.
To answer your question, these ten sexual denotative words were selected to form a foundation for the child’s, adolescent’s, and eventually, the adult’s learning about sexuality to be built upon. Without a strong foundation, objective learning about sexuality is not possible. And the strength of this foundation depends on pleasure, anatomy & physiology, and gender.
More than anything else, sex is about pleasure. Thus, the ten words facilitate an understanding of pleasure. By doing this, they allow children to understand (1) Masturbation, erogenous zones, and other natural self-explorations for learning, (2) Empathy, pain, and perspectives other than their own when it comes to sensitive areas of the body, and (3) Contrasting definitions of sex being about something different from pleasure, like: reproduction, authority, and morality.
Anatomy & Physiology
As humans, we are basically curious. One of the first things we are curious about is our sexual anatomy and physiology. Thus, the ten words facilitate being knowledgeable about anatomy and physiology, which (1) Increases the potential for hygiene, reproductive health, and life satisfaction, (2) Allows for thoughtful discussions about anatomy & physiology within relationships, which reduces the potential for miscommunication, physical diseases, and sexual abuse, and (3) Being knowledgeable about anatomy & physiology allows children to become aware of the true motivating forces behind their sexual curiosity, which negates sexual secrets, guilt, and shame; and enhances self-esteem, self-efficacy, and sexual health.
Immediately following birth and oftentimes before it, for example, during “gender” reveal parties, society binarily determines what boys and girls should be doing. From something as simple as boys should be wearing blue and girls should be wearing pink. To things as complex as boys should be assertive and girls should be passive. Everything we use to identify ourselves is based on gender. Whether we identify ourselves as Texans, Americans, saxophonists, soldiers, surfers, mothers, bakers, Chicago Bears’ fans or some combination of any of the identities on this list and beyond, they are all based on being a boy, a girl, or nonbinary. Gender is our truest starting place. By three years of age, not only is society judging us as acting “like a boy or a girl,” so too are we thinking about our own gender characteristics, often not in binary terms, and how we are expressing them.
Thus, the ten words facilitate an understanding of gender and identity. By doing this, they allow children to understand (1) Description, reflection and introspection of moral self, (2) Power, control, and ownership of person, and (3) Self-concept as it relates to gender-identity, -role, and -expression.
There you have them, the ten sexual denotative words all children should know and the reasons why these words allow children to be healthy, happy, and safe.
If you disagree with my ten words, then I look forward to hearing from you. Share your sexual denotative words and the reasons why your words should come before the ones on my list.
In the meantime, teach your children the words: clitoris, consent, gender, nipples, penis, sex, testicles, uterus, vagina, and vulva.
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Dr. Don Lucas, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and head of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. He loves psychology, teaching, and research.
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