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Sexual-health education needs to call body parts by their names

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Back-to-school is just around the corner, and that means another round of school-based sexual health education. I hope this also doesn't mean another round of the debate that raged a few months ago when Ontario reformed its sex-education program, including recommending the use of proper names of the genitals. In response to protests, some schools offered to use the term "private parts" when teaching Grade 1 students.

This makes me cringe.

We do not call the ear a "dingle" or the nose a "sniffy," so why refer to genitalia as anything but their actual names?

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When I have pressed people for their reasoning behind using cutesy names such as "down there" or a host of other euphemisms for genitalia, a common response has been that they sound too scientific. As a scientist, let me assure you that vagina, vulva, penis and scrotum are not scientific terms – they are simply anatomical terms, just like elbow and shin.

We seem to have become lazy in our terminology, and at the same time, our general societal discomfort with sexuality, especially the sexuality of children, perpetuates this problem. And yet, the words themselves are not sexualized. It is our fear of making them sexualized that casts a cloud of dirtiness around them.

By referring to genital anatomy by anything but their proper terms, we are implicitly communicating to children that those parts should not be talked about. The negative implications of this can include a general embarrassment about sexuality that produces barriers for healthy sex-related communication in the long-term. There is also evidence that children who are not embarrassed about their own body part names are more likely to have a healthy view of sexuality as an adult. A more catastrophic consequence of this may be a reluctance to report sexual abuse when it is occurring.

Despite the protests, it seems that most parents agree with this idea. The 2015 Ontario Edition of Questions and Answers regarding sexual-health education in the schools, which was developed by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, summarized a large survey of parents and declared that parents wanted sexual health education at school to include the teaching of proper terms for genital anatomy.

Their wishes also concur with the experts who drew up the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, which recommends that "age-appropriate sexual health education should be provided from the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school." It also adopts a model that weaves accurate information together with addressing the student's motivation, as well as their skills in order to reduce sexual risk, prevent negative sexual-health outcomes and enhance sexual health. The provision of accurate information is, therefore, essential.

We are confusing children by using incorrect terms for their genital anatomy, and then introducing the proper terms a few years later when educating on sexual activity and intercourse.

Lori Brotto, a registered psychologist, is a professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia and executive director of the Women's Health Research Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.

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