Why Comprehensive Sex Education Is the Way to Go

In the first part of this series, we looked at the history and some of the major failings of sexuality education. Now I want to highlight what works, and in which direction society should be heading to better global sexual health.

A standardised, national sex education curriculum is a rare beast indeed, and therein lies the root of the problem. Adolescents the world over would greatly benefit from accurate and reliable information, no matter where or who they are, and we simply aren’t stepping up to provide what should frankly be the bare minimum. Read on to learn why comprehensive sex education is the way to go.

In both Australia and the US, for example, sexuality education is treated on a case by case basis, with each state and territory providing different guidelines, and each school in turn taking the approach they find appropriate. In the US in particular, surveys indicate that while an overwhelming majority of parents support including comprehensive sex education programs in schools, only a minority of schools offer them.

It is imperative here to highlight the Scandinavian model of sexuality education – in particular, that which is present in Sweden. Swedish sexuality education was, like most places, conservative in the early twentieth century. However, from the mid-1900s, a national curriculum was established that required schools across the country to step up and provide age-appropriate education on sexuality from as young as four to six years old. In 1977, a revolutionary teacher’s manual was provided for Swedish schools which, for the first time, “stressed the broad ethical dimensions and foundations of human and, particularly, sexual relationships” (Boethius). In short, it offered a positive perspective on healthy sexual relationships; encouraged acceptance of sexuality for people from all walks of life including LGBT, aged people, people with disabilities and prisoners; taught adolescents to view porn with a critical eye; covered masturbation and abortion, and highlighted the importance of consent – as well as providing the standard anatomy, STI, contraception, and reproduction discourse. It was, and is, an admirable foundation upon which to build the sex-positive utopia of the future (let a girl dream).

The overwhelmingly positive results of nationwide, comprehensive sexuality education are indisputable: in the UK and US, where sexuality education is minimal and anatomical, the adolescent fertility rate (births per 1000 women ages 15-19) is a staggering 13.55 and 19.66 respectively. In Sweden and Switzerland, countries known for their comprehensive sexuality education, however, it is only 5.27 and 3.09 respectively (World Bank Group). UNESCO upholds the importance of national sexuality education programs, saying they are “an essential element of HIV prevention” and that while no program can entirely eliminate STIs, unintended pregnancy, and coercive or abusive sexual activity, “properly designed and implemented programmes can reduce some of these risks” – and that is a fantastic place to start.

It is imperative that schools around the world provide comprehensive and all-inclusive sexuality education. What matters more than the beliefs of individuals is the overall sexual health and well being of the collective, and said health cannot be achieved or maintained if certain areas refuse to hold an open and honest dialogue with adolescents about sex and sexuality. Having said that, sexuality education needs to go one step further if it is to be considered “all-inclusive”. Even in sexually progressive areas like Scandinavia, the dominant culture is still ever present in discourse – that is, a majority heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, unraced population. By touching on diversity and difference as only a small part of the curriculum, the Othering of said minorities is reinforced (Cense). In order to overcome the discrimination and abuse that is still faced by people in minority groups, it is essential that this new version of sexuality education “should be framed and taught from the perspective of the diversity of sexual cultures in society and should be responsive to the complexity of this diversity” (Mukoro). In other words, the teachings need to be sensitive to the fact that we live in a multicultural world and that a “one size fits all” approach is unlikely to work. It must also be highlighted by educators that one version of sexuality is not better or worse than another – only that they are different.

Sexuality education is a contentious topic, and in a world brimming with so much diversity, it is difficult to recommend a global approach that will work in every society and culture. However, by creating a newly formed sexuality education that is both comprehensive and all-inclusive of minorities in their myriad forms, specifically by including narratives that take into account the diversity of people and their sexuality the world over, we as intersectional educators can look forward to new generations who treat their fellow human beings with the respect they deserve, whether they fit into the dominant culture or not.

Do you think comprehensive sex education is the way to go?

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