RELATIONSHIPS AND SEX EDUCATION AROUND THE WORLD

SEXPLAIN’S INGRID BERDAL TAKES A LOOK AT THE GLOBAL CONTEXT OF RSE TEACHING PRACTICES.

THE USA

In the USA, teen pregnancy rates had fallen and contraceptive use increased during Obama’s presidency, with the administration showing a more positive and honest attitude towards teaching about sex. However, ‘abstinence-only education’ is returning under Trump, with decision-making on federal family planning funds to be led by Valerie Huber, the founder of the National Abstinence Educators Association, who plans to encourage the ‘rhythm method’ over birth control.

Gender stereotyping is also taught in many US schools, in ways that promote the belief that girls are responsible for preventing intimacy. Lies include that condoms cause cancer and that birth control pills can lead to infertility (1). A lack of sex education in both UK and US schools leads many young people to view educational videos on YouTube instead, made by sex education activists, for example, those by Hannah Witton (UK) and Laci Green (USA) (2).

CHINA

  Several leading Chinese universities have installed vending machines offering HIV testing kits.

Several leading Chinese universities have installed vending machines offering HIV testing kits.

China does not have compulsory sex education and so teaching is often either limited or not present at all. The numbers of abortions and STIs are rising. Students in some schools have tried to use textbooks but these were removed after a negative response from parents. Interestingly, on the other hand, many universities have now installed vending machines selling HIV testing kits (3).

MALAYSIA

Malaysia adopts a mostly biological perspective, and it is not usually taught as an individual subject, but comes into those such as Biology or Moral and Islamic Studies. Improvement has been sought by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry (4). The article ‘Awareness of school students on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and their sexual behaviour: a cross-sectional study conducted in Pulau Pinang, Malaysia’ (5) concludes from a study in this part of Malaysia that “school students have moderate level of knowledge about STIs”.

INDIA

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In India, meanwhile, despite the sex education teaching programme being considered successful, it is not implemented in all schools due to not being compulsory. A culture with a negative attitude to sex also generates shame around discussing the subject (6).

KENYA

Kenyan schools follow the government’s HIV curriculum, which promotes the teaching of abstinence before marriage as the main method of prevention of the infection. This does not – at least, on its own – reduce the number of cases of STIs or of pregnancy in the country. In sub-Saharan Africa, STIs and early fertility are both shown to be major health risks for adolescent girls (7).

The article Gendered construction of sexual risks: implications for safer sex among young people in Kenya and Sweden’, argues that, in both Sweden and Kenya, boys have greater sexual freedom than girls, and that girls are often regarded as responsible for sex being safe (8).

THE NETHERLANDS

The Netherlands is widely regarded as one of the most progressive countries when teaching sex education, with discussions taking place from a younger age (9), both with parents and in schools. Bodies are talked about from age four in lessons, while speaking with partners and consent are among the subjects covered during teenage-hood. Gender identity has been another topic since sex education became compulsory in 2012.

The average age for beginning sexual experiences in the Netherlands is seventeen, with most reporting them to be positive experiences and the majority using protection; somewhat unsurprisingly, they also show the lowest teen pregnancy rate in Europe (10), suggesting a link between the honesty around teaching sex education and early age from which it begins, and the later age at which sexual activity begins and increased use of protection.

UK

In England, Sex and Relationships Education will not be made a compulsory part of the secondary school curriculum until September 2019. Relationships education will then be statutory in primary schools, and PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) in all schools.

The requirements for the curriculum listed in the Department of Education’s Policy Statement are vague, stating that “The subjects would be made part of the basic school curriculum (as now for sex education in maintained secondary schools), which allows schools flexibility in developing their planned programme, integrated within a broad and balanced curriculum,” as well as listing only what “they will likely focus on”.

Although teaching about consent, sex, sexual health and sexuality appears to be recommended, it is not required. The implication of the emphasis on relationships-based rather than sex-based aspects of education should perhaps be noted: “the Secretary of State issues guidance on delivering these subjects, which all schools must have regard to, including setting out that pupils are taught:

  • safety in forming and maintaining relationships,

  • the characteristics of healthy relationships,

  • how relationships may affect mental and physical health”. (11)

Evie Karkera Illustration

Wales will make changes to the teaching of ‘SRE’, which include its renaming as ‘relationships and sexuality education’, to be implemented in 2022. There will be an emphasis on LGBT+ inclusivity (potentially due to its introduction thirty years after section 28, which condemned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools), making the approach to sex positive rather than simply biological, relationships, consent, sexuality and equality (12).