"Naked people tend to make people panic," says Melissa Dean McKinney dryly. True enough, but with her particular audience, she also has to worry about people giggling.
The 37-year-old clinical trial coordinator with the UVA Health System teaches sex education at Free Union Country School. Her week-long course for fourth and fifth graders lasts several hours each day. Such an ambitious schedule has worried plenty of parents.
"In America, there are two distinct myths," says McKinney. "One is that information is good but sexual knowledge might not be, and the other is that information equals permission.
"There's also a notion that children are born ignorant of sexual knowledge, that they're innocents, and that giving them this knowledge takes away their childhood," says McKinney.
"To tell you the truth," says Free Union director Carolyn Lawlor, "it's the parents who initially requested that such a program be put in place to help them with what they're doing at home."
Still, there are always parents who choose to withdraw their child from the class, a decision that both McKinney and Lawlor will support.
"A lot of the time, when I get a chance to talk to these parents, they come around," says McKinney, who would eventually like to start even earlier. "We need to be thinking way younger," says McKinney. "Most comprehensive sexual education curricula begin in preschool."
Cue the worried parents.
"When parents hear that I want to move this down to a lower grade level, they make a leap that the same content will be taught," McKinney says. "That's not the case, but we start laying the foundation early. They're very age-appropriate ideas."
For example, she'd like her fourth and fifth grade students to arrive with their terminology straight.
"By age four, body terms should be second nature for everyone," she says. "By this age, kids start to realize that things have beginnings and endings," she continues, "and they realize 'Hey, I wasn't always here,' so they ask, 'Where do babies come from?'"
That's when some parents start to melt down. McKinney's point is that having consultants like her around to help at that developmental stage might reassure them that they needn't panic.
"At that point, all they really want to know is, 'You were in a uterus,'" she says. "But parents panic, because they think it means penises and vaginas and orgasms. So they start making up things like storks and cabbage patches."
Melissa Dean McKinney
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO