The Evolving State of Sexuality Education Around the World

The following is from a published article in the August 2015 issue of  Contemporary Sexuality. The full article is available on the AASECT website: http://www.aasect.org/newsletter?current-issue=190

 

What’s Happening Abroad

With all of the limitations that have been placed upon sexuality education programs in the United States, it has become quite common to imagine all other countries as Edenic bastions of open-mindedness. Are these beliefs well-founded? The answer: it depends.

Patti Britton, Ph.D., A.C.S.E. and an AASECT Past President is a sexologist and sex coach who leads Sexual Attitude Reassessments (SARs) around the world. In some countries, in which religion plays a large part in cultural attitudes and behaviors, “sexuality education is fear-based,” says Britton. “There is so much guilt and shame and fear imbued in people because they don’t have any place where they can get permission to accept themselves as sexual beings.”

Britton says that, in these countries, the approach toward sexuality education is similar to what we find in the United States. “This is a very conservative country,” Britton says of the U.S. “In this and in other very religiously conservative countries… their religion and their culture dictate a norm that prohibits conversation or discussion about sexuality. In very few parts of the world is comprehensive sexuality education the norm,” says Britton.

AASECT’s International Regional Representative, D. Narayana Reddy, M.D., Ph.D. admits that, in India, he and other sexuality educators “have to walk a tightrope.”

“This is because, of late, a number of fringe and fundamentalist groups have cropped up with an eye on publicity and sensationalism,” says Reddy. “Even if the government wants to implement sexual health programs in schools and colleges, the opposition political parties raise objections. They oppose not because they are against the education, per se, but they have to oppose because they are in opposition. Most of them do not even know about the components of sexual health education. Yet they blindly oppose it. So sexual health educators have to work with a lot of constraints and make sure that they do not tread on the toes of these fringe groups.”

Boonstra, who published a piece in the Guttmacher Policy Review on sexuality education in developing countries, speaks of how the huge influx of funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs lends them an added legitimacy abroad. True Love Waits, for example, a faith-based approach to sexuality education, is U.S.-based, but now has become popular in other countries. “The basic idea of abstinence-only is certainly not a U.S. idea,” says Boonstra, echoing Britton’s comments. “Many countries feel uncomfortable with the idea of teens having sex, and even more so as teens wait longer to get married.”

Boonstra speaks of the work the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is doing in the interest of not only providing standalone sexuality education programs, but in figuring out how to weave it into biology and other courses, including the organization’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education: An Evidence-Informed Approach for Schools, Teachers and Health Educators. “But it’s a struggle for those schools,” she says, “because it’s a struggle to keep kids in school, let alone diversify education, have teachers trained, and have resources that are up to date when you’re in a low-resource setting.”

But there are signs of hope, and of growth, in some areas. There are signs that people around the world are hungry for evidence-based, holistic sexuality information. “What I have observed may be slightly biased,” says Whipple, “because the groups that invite me to speak are much more open and want to learn a whole lot more. But I always speak about sexuality holistically, and I talk about what that means. I try to convey that there’s a whole lot more to our sensual and sexual health than just the genitals and their function.”

Britton and Boonstra speak of their own encounters with more progressive attitudes toward sex and sexuality education in Europe. “I’m really taken with how open the United Kingdom is in terms of sexual freedom,” says Britton. “I’m stunned because there has always been this British reserve. They’re not particularly forthcoming in commentary after a workshop. But then I’m amazed and moved by how open and inclusive they are toward multiple modalities for sexual healing and treatment, including touch-based modalities.”

“In European countries,” Boonstra affirms, “people tend to be more accepting of teen sexuality, and more holistic in their approach to sexuality education. There are different attitudes around contraceptive use. Here in the U.S., teens often feel it’s shameful to be using contraception, whereas studies of teens in Europe show that they have very different attitudes toward contraception. They feel you’re being irresponsible if you’re not using contraception. Accessibility and attitude all adds up to lower pregnancy rates.”

“All around the world,” says Britton, “I see a quiet revolution. People claiming the right to pleasure. But I do not see that happening in the U.S. I see us clamping down on sexual rights, even though we have just legalized same sex marriages, even though we are experiencing a revolution in trans acceptance. In one two-month period, two gigantic political and social shifts have occurred but, at the same time, we’re still a very conservative country.”

Boonstra sees every day the impact comprehensive sexuality education can have on pregnancy rates, abortion rates, and other health statistics. “I’m certainly not a program expert,” says Boonstra. “However, various resources point us to what young people should be learning.” She references the aforementioned National Sexuality Education Standards, in addition to a similar document developed in Europe titled Policies for Sexuality Education in the European Union, mentioning that the latter document is much more forthright about adolescents and their rights to information, and adolescents as sexual beings. “I found it interesting even to compare and contrast the language and the kind of honesty Europeans have toward some of these subjects,” says Boonstra.

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