Sex Education – where are we at?
Sex education has a diverse and contradictory history, which will not be explored here, but amongst professionals there is mainly agreement on the need for a more comprehensive sex education.
“According to the European Commission, sexual health can be related to a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality and is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. As a sensitive area it involves multiple levels of educational, ethical, medical, social and cultural customs, which vary considerably across Europe”.[i]
The ongoing regional consultation on the development of the European action plan for sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) 2017-2021 calls for an inclusive European policy strategy with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights that includes children, adolescents and parents, paying specific attention to vulnerable groups.
In 2011 the European Regional World Health Organization was established and introduced sexual and reproductive health into the national agendas. With this, progress in national health policies was achieved through national strategies on sexual and reproductive health across Europe, focussing mainly on preventive measures for unsafe abortion, STI’s, HIV, unwanted pregnancies, etc., with some looking a bit further, being aware of the growing gender-based violence and mental health issues arising in relation to it.
However, several studies show that young people are not feeling equipped to manage the issues arising when they face starting intimate relationships and sexual relations, that sex education through their parents is mainly non-existent and that schools are not going much beyond the physical functionality of the reproductive organs and the use of contraceptive methods.
Teachers and schools today have to fulfil the roles that parents fail to and they have to deal with many problems such as psychological issues, lack of attention and love, depression, violence, abuse, etc. that children are coming to school with, as they are lacking the support from their homes. But teachers are not trained for those multiple tasks and often have to rely on themselves trying to find a way to keep up with the constantly rising appearance of multiple issues. Specifically when it comes to sexuality, most teachers are not trained and equipped to teach on sexuality, body image and healthy relationships. Students have even reported that sometimes they felt “pressured” into sex through rushed and awkward sex education lessons delivered by teachers, promoting the message that it is “normal” to have sex before the age of consent as long as contraception is used.[ii]
In the absence of supporting and satisfactory direction the young, guided by an over-sexualized culture and the silent acceptance of pornography being the new status quo of what sexuality is, have found their own way to access information and learn about sex. International studies and statistics report that our tech savvy and well-informed young live by a sense of sexual normality that is based on abuse and violence, their perception of relationships and consent are worryingly skewed and their social interaction is characterized by bullying, cyber-bullying and sexual harassment. The arising physical and psychological health conditions are more than worrying with the rise of new forms of sexual health issues such as chronic pain in young women, porn addiction in young men and normalized sexual abuse online and offline etc.
Sex education could be fundamental in supporting the young to develop intimacy, loving relationships and appreciating and understanding the body. But the reality is that inadequate sex education, both through school education and parents, and the general sexualisation of society and specifically Internet porn, has hijacked our relationships and transformed intimacy, love and connection into a functional act of domination and abuse, portraying a degrading way of viewing our bodies.
This insidious form of sex education changes how sexuality is seen and expressed, reducing men and women to over-sexualized objects and diminishing them to vessels of sexual function and physical release, instead of a loving connection celebrating two people.
Sex has become a commodity that people access, get their release and treat as a consumer good, based on demand and supply. In this trade of sexuality, degrading visions of women’s and men’s bodies are paramount, encouraging them to de-value themselves and each other, engendering a sexuality centred on a highly reduced form of sex which we call ‘normal’.
The accepted standards of sexualised and abusive relationships are the values the young are growing into and they are adapting fast. Starting to watch Internet porn by the age of 7-8, dealing with body issues and self-harm from a very young age, learning disregard and abuse as a normalized form of virtual communication has become the new normal in a hyper-sexualised society where parents and educators are only left with trying to respond or react and then look for the quick fix for a way of life that has made abuse its common denominator.
We have to stop to look for solutions and start an education that prepares the young for what is coming towards them: offering sex education that prepares them for life and equips them with a body awareness that supports them as they encounter the abuse that is promoted on multiple levels.
True sex education starts in Kindergarten and consistently develops into primary and secondary school, always adjusting to an age-related learning to self-care and self-love in a world that teaches us to have abusive relationships with ourselves and our bodies – and through this with anything else, such as food, exercise, entertainment, the peer group, parents, teachers, etc.
Therefore a multidimensional approach to sex education within the bigger context of the education system is needed: one that has the understanding that this can only be an approach that takes into account the whole wellbeing of the young, developing body awareness through self-care. Sex education is about the whole body and how we relate to our body, building first of all a loving relationship with ourselves and from there with others.