Sex education is not compulsory in all European countries. In fact, the subject continues to generate controversy in some EU Member States; in Poland, for example, there has been a political backlash against the teaching of sex education in schools, with Amnesty International recently accusing the Polish government of “putting young people at risk” with “recklessly retrogressive laws” that could see teachers jailed for up to three years if they teach sex education to under-18s.
Instead, Polish educators are encouraged to teach preparation for “family life”. Clearly, there is disagreement about the lessons young people should be learning when it comes to sex. In fact, many organisations now prefer the term “sexuality education” to sex education. They argue that sexuality is much broader than just the biological facts, covering a range of topics including relationships, communication about sexuality and sexual health, valuing one’s body, and having understanding and respect for different sexual orientations and gender identities.
Attempts have been made to promote a common approach to teaching sex (or “sexuality”) education. For example, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe – in cooperation with several other organisations – has developed a framework of Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe, providing “age-appropriate and evidence-informed suggestions for sexuality education”. These are not, however, mandatory guidelines, and it is entirely the responsibility of individual countries to set curricula and enforce standards.
What do our readers think? We had a comment come in from Sophia, who thinks sex education should be mandatory in every classroom in Europe.
To get a reaction, we put Sophia’s comment to Amelia Jenkinson, director and co-founder of Sexplain, a UK-based organisation offering sex education workshops in schools. What would she say?
I fully agree with Sophia, sex education should be compulsory in schools. Here in the UK, teaching sex education will only be mandatory from September 2020, which was not the case previously. We can see the effects [of not teaching sex education] in classrooms: there are fundamental gaps in knowledge among 11- to-18-year-olds about their bodies, sexuality, gender, consent and healthy relationships – knowledge which helps determine physical and emotional well-being. Our organisation offers inclusive and understandable workshops at schools so that the young people feel better in their bodies and emotionally. In addition, they should also critically question their attitudes so that we all campaign for greater equality.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Nino Berdzuli, Programme Manager for Sexual and Reproductive, Maternal and Newborn Health at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe. What would she say to Sophia?
Very good question, Sophia. First of all, I think Sophia was referring to sexuality education in schools. Sex education is mostly related to a biological function, but we are talking more broadly about sexuality education, which also involves relationships and personal feelings, individual and societal values. I would say that formalised sexuality education is very important and has become even more important because of the rapid spread of social media, the Internet, mobile phone technology which brings enormous positive and educational potential, but it is of concern given the risks of access to online pornography that has come with it. All these developments have triggered the need for good quality sexuality education. Formalised sexuality education will enable young people to deal with their sexuality in a safe and satisfactory manner.
Formalised, mandatory sexuality education in school is important, first of all, to reach most children and young people, and to provide them with the evidence-based information. With the proper training and staffing in schools, these can be very safe spaces and learning environments for the discussions on sexuality, and teachers and schools can become skilled and trusted sources of information. We support formalised and mandatory sexuality education. But, of course, I have to say that children and young people need both formal and informal sexuality education, and these two should not be opposed, they complement one another.
Next up, reader James argues that, as well as schools, parents should also play an important role when it comes to sex education. Would Amelia Jenkinson agree with him?
I agree with James that schools and parents should work together on the subject. There are some schools that approach parents to involve them in educating their children. Including so that conversations [started in school] can be continued at home. These two sides can complement each other very well.
However, not all parents feel comfortable taking on the topic of sex education. It is also unlikely that parents are qualified to be able to respond well to all issues raised, so we risk putting too much responsibility onto parents. Plus, there are also many young people who refuse to have this sort of conversation with their parents. You may prefer to speak to a neutral person outside the home. When it comes to having such conversations at home, that’s fantastic, but you also have to realise that it won’t always be possible.
Should sex education be compulsory in all schools? What role should parents play? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!