When considering the term ‘sexuality education’, what comes to mind is an image of spotty-faced teenagers in a school classroom with a banana stuffed in a condom.
However, under international human rights law everyone, regardless of age, has the right to control and decide freely on matters related to their sexuality. This includes the right to have access to sexual and reproductive health care information, education and services.
“We might think that, after reaching adulthood, we no longer need sexuality education,” says sex educator Katriina Bildjuschkin of the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland.
“But sexuality is part of health and well-being at any age, along with other elements of health such as nutrition, exercise, mental health, sleep and the use of intoxicants.”
Bringing sex education into the 21st century
Another common misconception about sexuality education is in fact that it is merely the teaching of intercourse and reproduction.
Sexuality education, sometimes misleadingly referred to as sex education, is a general term for various aspects. It can be defined as consisting of teaching about human sexuality, intimate relationships, human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, sexual activity, sexual orientation, gender identity, abstinence, contraception and reproductive rights and responsibilities.
“Support and education are needed, especially at the crossroads of life, such as starting working life, retiring, suffering from sickness, starting or ending a relationship or being pregnant. This is when support is also needed on sexuality issues,” says Bildjuschkin.
The International planned parenthood federation (IPPF) sets the following goals for comprehensive sexuality education. People should be able to acquire accurate information on sexual and reproductive rights. Sexuality education should also develop life skills such as critical thinking, communication and negotiation skills, a sense of self, assertiveness and the ability to ask questions and seek help.
Lastly, sexuality education should nurture positive attitudes and value open-mindedness, respect for oneself and others, a sense of responsibility and a positive attitude towards one’s sexual and reproductive health.
Quality of sexuality education varies in Europe
Sexuality education is defined as being official when given by a professional, and unofficial when received from parents, friends or, for example, when watching television.
Official, organised sexuality education usually starts when children enter the school system. The quality of this education builds the basis of knowledge and attitudes on the subject.
A review of sexuality education in European countries, however, shows the overall picture to be quite modest. Sexuality education is not yet mandatory in every European country and can still be a sensitive and disputed issue.
Even when countries report having compulsory sexuality education, it might be that the teaching or content does not meet any quality criteria and the practice of sexuality education may vary widely within the country. Definitions and depths of sexuality education can also vary greatly at school level.
In Catholic countries, which make up almost half of the countries in the report, the influence of the Church is named as the main reason why sexuality education is missing or merely restricted to biology and family planning. On the other hand, much has been achieved in actively involving and partnering with religious organisations in sexuality education.
Best practice of sexuality education not necessarily flawless
Sexuality education in the Nordic countries has been estimated by IPPF to represent an advanced model of comprehensive sexuality education in Europe.
A liberal atmosphere and long history of sexuality education give these countries a head start.
Sweden became the first European country to establish compulsory sexuality education in all schools in 1955, a good 15 years before the next ones followed.
In primary education, there are more hours dedicated to javelin-throwing than sex education. You can reflect on which will be more valuable in people’s lives.
In Finland, along with Estonia, sexuality education has been institutionalised in teacher training so that it is part of their curriculum.
Finland is also the only Nordic country where sexuality education has been followed up by two national surveys targeted at biology and health education teachers in 1996 and 2006 and by measuring adolescents’ knowledge in national sexual health knowledge quizzes in 2000 and 2006.
Even though Finnish sexuality education has been assessed as good in comparison with other countries, Finnish sexual well-being organisation Sexpo argues that the amount and quality are insufficient.
“In primary education, there are more hours dedicated to javelin-throwing than sexuality education. You can reflect on which will be more valuable in people’s lives,” says Tommi Paalanen, sexuality educator and Executive Director of the Sexpo Foundation.
He claims there are untrained people in charge of the education and many aspects of sexuality are missing, so Sexpo is constantly advocating for a principle of having a trained sexuality educator in each school.
”Sexuality education in Finland often concentrates on health, and all the indicators show that we are doing it well, but it is often only a discussion about condoms, periods and pregnancy, when it should be about sex positivity, interaction, assent, fears and hopes,” says Paalanen.
#MeToo reveals a lack of sexuality education among adults
The development of sexual awareness and education has been positive since the 1960s. Generally, the trend has been to broaden the content of what is meant by sexuality and how the education around it should be formed. At least at discussion level, we have moved away from just condoms to a broader conversation.
In recent years, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault has highlighted many previously ignored issues.
The #MeToo movement is precisely a cultural-critical debate that draws attention to the fact that a specific kind of inappropriate behaviour in sexual encounters is common and generally accepted.
The scope it has reached internationally shows that there is still demand for extensive sexuality education, perhaps especially for adults.
“The movement shows that sexual rights have not been realised well enough and that gender equality is not complete, even in liberal countries,” says Katriina Bildjuschkin.
Tommi Paalanen agrees.
“The #MeToo movement is precisely a cultural-critical debate that draws attention to the fact that a specific kind of inappropriate behaviour in sexual encounters is common and generally accepted. The number of incidents in different situations worldwide shows that it cannot be just a few crooks who are the guilty ones,” he says.
The movement and the campaigns related to it are a continuum to this and a strong response from civil society.
“In countries with a strong civil society, young people follow what is going on around them and are involved in value discussions. They are a strong support group who are interested in the topics of sexuality and want to take them forward,” says Paalanen.
Bildjuschkin, however, says that, although things have improved, lately there has also been a deterioration in sexuality rights such as abortion laws on a global and European scale.
Paalanen agrees that it is not self-evident that development will be positive.
“There is a rise of conservative values. In many European countries that have been pioneers of development, there have been cuts in sexuality education programmes and support. There are many issues linked to accepting diversity, so we still have a lot to fight.”
The experts see that much can be done to prevent and moderate the future need for such movements. The answer is norm-critical and cohesive sexuality education for youth, adults and professionals working in health care and well-being.
Official sexuality education for adults done by NGOs
Although the greatest impact of sexuality education can be achieved on youth, in sexuality issues it is all about lifelong learning.
As there is no official sexuality education for adults, it is left to NGOs to provide information campaigns and detailed facts for those who seek for them.
RFSU, a Swedish organisation working in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights, started targeting the adult audience about seven years ago.
“The impulse was self-criticism. We had been seen as an organisation targeting merely the youth and we felt that we had not been clear that we are here to provide sexuality education for everybody,” says sex educator Pelle Ullholm from RFSU.
The organisation has since made, for example, podcasts, short films, newspaper columns and media releases targeted especially at adult audiences. They have also started a special counselling service for the over-50s.
“Sexuality education might be different for different groups. It can be more relevant to me now than it was before. It’s not just about age. It’s also about where I am in life,” says Ullholm.
Youth and adults share the problems
Universities and colleges are a good place to run information campaigns for young adults but, after that, they can be a hard-to-reach target group. And as the numbers of young adults who are carriers of sexually transmitted diseases are increasing, this is one target group that sexuality education organisations should especially try to reach.
Since meeting people personally is even more effective than online campaigns, RFSU went where their target group was.
“Last summer we reached 400,000 people cooperating with the five biggest music festivals in the country. Sexual harassment at festivals is a big problem. There is a need to talk about sexuality education, and festivals welcome us warmly. At events we have people discussing sexuality and we have, for example, trained people on how to be an active bystander,” says Ullholm.
Both sex educators, Pelle Ullholm and Tommi Paalanen, report the extensive growth of contacts and inquiries that RFSU and Sexpo have received in recent years. Through various channels, they get more sexuality-related questions and problems than their employees can handle.
“Simple, basic issues have decreased but there are more complex problems related, for example, to loneliness or mental health. The good side of this increase is that people are reaching out with their questions and daring to seek help,” says Paalanen.
In Ullholm’s experience, the topics adults raise on the help lines are surprisingly similar to those that might be raised by youth, apart from erection problems. Women ask about contraceptives, whether they can have sex after having missed a day taking the pill, and men are interested in the average penis size.
Although the Swedish school system and RFSU, that was founded as early as 1933, have proved to be strong pioneers in sexuality education on a European level, Ullholm sees that there are still work to do.
“Adults really need to discuss more. Talking about sexuality by avoiding too much focus on sex could reduce the risk of misbehaving or acting non-consensually.”
What if there are no right words?
Talking can be hard if you have never been introduced to the subject or been given the right language to use.
“In healthcare contacts, we can see that older people who have had no or just the basic sex education in their youth can have misconceptions on sexuality issues,” says Katriina Bildjuschkin.
The game is not over, however, as long as there is a will to learn, education is available and there is no stigma to talking about the sexuality issues.
We lack the right words for talking about sexuality with adults. Some words are too childish and some too clinical.
Based on her nearly 40 years of experience in the field, Bildjuschkin thinks that continuing education is needed for experts in social services, health care and education for it to become more natural to talk about sexuality along with the other sectors of health, when encountering a patient, client or student.
“I believe sexuality still is not considered enough, because in social services or health care there is not enough training on how to bring up these questions. It feels inappropriate to ask questions related to it. Also, we lack the right words for talking about sexuality with adults. Some words are too childish and some too clinical.”
She suggests that sexuality be added to the check list to go through in health care and social services. That way, it is not given excessive attention and perhaps talking about sexuality might become a more neutral topic as well.
“The first step would be listening: asking about sexual health and sex life and giving room to people to share what they have on their mind.”
This perception could probably be amplified to any age and situation in sexuality education.
It is essential to open our eyes and ears to the fact that sexuality is a part of human well-being, and education in this field should not be left in the shadows just because we are too ashamed to talk about it, we do not have the right words or we think that, unlike any other field of education, methods of sexuality education do not need refreshing.
Katriina Bildjuschkin articulates the essence of what sexuality education should at its best be about.
“Everyone should be able to be sure that they are safe, and that no one can touch them unless they want to. These are the basics of sexuality education.”