*By Paul Brian*
Sex education aims to develop and strengthen the ability of children and young people to make conscious, satisfying, healthy and respectful choices regarding relationships, sexuality and emotional and physical health. Sex education does not encourage children and young people to have sex.
In Europe, sex education is a subject in the curriculum. It has a history of more than half a century. It first began in Sweden in 1955, followed by many more Western European countries in the 1970s and 1980s. The introduction of school-based sex education continued into the 1990s and early 2000s, first in France and the United Kingdom and subsequently in Portugal, Spain, Estonia, Ukraine and Armenia. Actually, in Ireland, sex education became mandatory in primary and secondary schools in 2003.
The focus of sex education has changed in line with the educational and public health priorities of the time, but most key elements have stayed the same.
It started with the prevention of unintended pregnancy (1960s–1970s), then moved on to the prevention of HIV (1980s) and awareness about sexual abuse (1990s), finally embracing the prevention of sexism, homophobia and online bullying from 2000 onwards. Today, an analysis of gender norms and reflections on gender inequality are important parts of sex education.
What is Holistic Sex Education?
Holistic Sex Education is learning about the cognitive, emotional, social, interactive and physical aspects of sex. It should start early in childhood and progress through adolescence and adulthood. It aims at supporting and protecting sexual development. It gradually equips and empowers children and young people with information, skills and positive values to understand and enjoy their sexuality, have safe and fulfilling relationships and take responsibility for their own and other people’s sexual health and well-being.
What are the benefits of sex education?
Sex education delivered within a safe and enabling learning environment and alongside access to health services has a positive and life-long effect on the health and well-being of young people. Studies in several European countries have shown that the introduction of long-term national sexuality education programs has led to a reduction in teenage pregnancies and abortions and a decline in rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV infections among young people aged 15–24 years.
Beyond that, by increasing confidence and strengthening skills to deal with different challenges, sex education can empower young people to develop stronger and more meaningful relationships. Social norms and gender inequality influence the expression of sexuality and sexual behavior. Many young women have low levels of power or control in their sexual relationships.
Young men, on the other hand, may feel pressure from their peers to act according to male sexual stereotypes and engage in controlling or harmful behaviors.
Good-quality sex education has an impact on positive attitudes and values and can even out the power dynamics in intimate relationships, thus contributing to the prevention of abuse and fostering mutually respectful and consensual partnerships.
The importance of going beyond informal sex education
Various social and technical developments during the past decades have triggered the need for good – quality sex education that can enable young people to deal with their sexuality in a safe and satisfactory manner. Examples of these kinds of developments are: globalization and the arrival of new population groups with different cultural and religious backgrounds; the rapid spread of new media, particularly the Internet, Internet pornography and mobile phone technology; the emergence of HIV and AIDS; increasing concerns about STIs; abortion; infertility; the sexual abuse of children and adolescents and, last but not least, changing attitudes towards sexuality and changing sexual behavior among young people.
Formalized sex education, as opposed to peer education and extracurricular activities, is well placed to reach a majority of children and young people.
Parents, relatives, friends and other laypersons are important sources of learning about human relationships and sexuality, especially for younger age groups.
However, informal sources are often insufficient, because of the complexity of knowledge and skills required when discussing topics such as contraception, STIs, emotional development and communication.
Many parents feel uncomfortable or unprepared to tackle sex education themselves and are supportive of schools taking on this role. Moreover, young people often prefer to have additional sources of information other than their parents, because the latter are felt to be too close.
Sexuality education and human rights
Good-quality sex education is grounded in internationally accepted human rights, in particular the right to access appropriate health-related information. This right has been confirmed by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and also the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Furthermore, sexuality education is advocated for in the 1994 Program of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, and its importance has been underscored by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education in a 2010 report to the United Nations General Assembly devoted exclusively to this topic and by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011.
Myths and facts about sexuality education
Good-quality sex education does not lead to young people having sex earlier than is expected based on the national average. This has been shown in research studies in Europe, including Finland and Estonia, and in research from other countries around the world.
Good-quality sexuality education can, however, lead to later sexual debut and more responsible sexual behavior.
Sex education does not deprive children of their ‘innocence’. Giving children information on sexuality that is scientifically accurate, non-judgmental, age-appropriate and complete, as part of a carefully phased process from the beginning of formal schooling (including kindergarten and pre-school) is something from which children can benefit. Sex education and an open attitude towards sexuality does not make it easier for pedophiles to abuse children.
The opposite is the case: when children learn about equality and respect in relationships, they are in a better position to recognize abusive persons and situations. In the absence of this, children and young people can look for and receive conflicting and sometimes damaging messages from their peers, the media or other sources.
Sex education is not damaging to children or adolescents. It encompasses a range of topics that are tailored to the age and developmental level of a child. This is what is called age-appropriateness. A child aged 4–6 years for example learns about topics such as friendships, emotions and different parts of the body. These topics are also relevant for older children and adolescents but are then taught at a different level.
Gradually, other topics such as puberty, family planning and contraception are introduced. For most young adults, sexual relationships are built on principles similar to those of the social relationships learnt in early life.
Children are aware of and recognize these relationships long before they act on their sexuality and therefore need the skills to understand their bodies, relationships and feelings from an early age.
What do you think about sex education? Tell us in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
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