“Dear Eki, Am I normal?”
This was the starting line of many letters sent to the primary sexuality education institute of my childhood and youth in the 1990s – the Bees and Honey column of a popular Finnish youth magazine.
In the column, the young readers of the magazine could anonymously ask anything about health. They asked about growing up, feelings, even drugs. But more than anything, they asked about sex. For an impressive period of almost 40 years, the letters of several generations of Finnish youth were answered by a family doctor Erkki-Pekka Helle, aka “Eki”.
It was the time before smartphones, Facebook groups and fast internet. It was the time before Google.
And as far as I remember it was also time of basically non-existent official sexuality education. We had one lesson in primary school, perhaps a few in secondary and then again a few in high school.
The sexuality education of my youth really was looking at drawings of body parts, STDs, and how not to soil yourself during “Aunt Flo visits” or ruin your life getting pregnant as a teenager.
It was not, however, the kind of sexuality education I could imagine being planned in modern policy papers: the kind that could be useful in building tolerant views and healthy self-esteem based on respecting your own and other people’s rights.
No, the sexuality education of my youth really was looking at drawings of body parts, STDs, and how not to soil yourself during “Aunt Flo visits” or ruin your life getting pregnant as a teenager (the latter being by the way only girls’ responsibility).
The imagery was heteronormative, alerting and gloomy. The whole world of human sexuality was a dull place filled with strange metaphors of risks, pain and shame.
In the face of very narrow representation of sexuality, I, like many people of my generation, were willing to check my mail every month in hope that Eki would tell me that I too was perfectly normal.
It also doesn’t come as such a surprise that the #MeToo movement and calls for inclusiveness made by of human rights organisations have caught much of the adult population off-guard.
THIS THEME ISSUE, ADULT EDUCATION AND SEX, offers a look at the state of European sexuality education from various angles. Despite much development in the right direction, there is still a lot to be done to get the adult population up to date.
The feature article offers a general picture of the state of sexuality education for youth, adults and professionals in Europe. Also, one of the best performing countries, Sweden, shares its tips on reaching adults for sexuality education.
The issue also aims to give the theme at least a bit of the inclusiveness it deserves. We visit Germany to talk about child sexual abuse prevention activities, Poland to talk about rising feminism and reproduction rights and the UK to meet with an active person in the UK trans community. We also take a critical look at the boom in self-help literature.
THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION, HOWEVER, is a question of policies and priorities.
Take another look at my example. If this was how sex education was in Finland in the 1990s, I can only start to imagine how things must have been earlier, or still are in countries where issues concerning human sexuality continue to be an enormous taboo.
Should we agree about the need to find methods and innovative ways to reach out, not only youth but also adults – lifelong sexuality education on a pan-European scale?
Sexuality is too important to be left to Google algorithms and internet gurus and too delicate to be left to pornography.
My answer to the question is yes. Today, there may be an infinite amount of information, but the bottom line is this: sexuality is too important to be left to Google algorithms and internet gurus. It’s also too delicate to be left to pornography.
We need internet gatekeepers, accurate knowledge from sources we can trust, human contact, peer support and safe places to share our worries and inclusiveness, to make us feel normal.
The Finnish Bees and Honey column succeeded doing just this in its time, but now we need to find new ones.
And when the professional pedagogues take up the task, I hope they won’t resort to intimidation and dim metaphors about bees, flowers and Aunt Flo when talking about perfectly normal parts of human life.