Adults have always been uncomfortable discussing anything concerning sex with their children. The prevailing mood has remained for so long that children should be protected from anything sexual to preserve their innocence. Such a notion still retains some validity because age must be considered before any form of sexual education. However, the rise of teenage pregnancy, rape, and sexually transmitted infections has led parents to talk to their children about sex and sexuality earlier than people in the past. This has greatly influenced sex education around the world in recent decades. It is also interesting to look at the different ways that sex is taught in other countries and its effects on the well-being of children. Here we discuss how you might approach talking about sex with your child and here how sex education is taught in different states in America.
“We must equip young people with information about health as well as positive aspects of sex and sexuality,” said Tewodros Melesse, former Africa Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). The impact of poor sex education around the world is massive. From sexual assault, the spread of STIs, and unplanned pregnancies many countries are trying different methods.
Here we compare how it is taught in different countries and look at the effects to see if there is anything we can learn.
Sexual Education: The State of it and How it’s Taught Around the World
Even within the same country, sex education can differ due to several factors. Other countries are known to be more liberal in their sex education teaching.
Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Norway and the Netherlands remain the two countries with the lowest teen pregnancy worldwide, with Norway’s about a quarter of the USA’s and the UK’s. Therefore the perception of a hedonistic drug-fueled lifestyle needs to be put aside. The teenagers there are part of the same culture but the outcomes are far better. The main point is that talking about sex starts early and is frank and to the point. Children are aware of what sex is and its’ effects from the earliest of ages. Sweden has what they call snoop Snippa, a sex-ed class where primary school children watch videos about private parts before going into more detail later. While in the Netherlands, they have a week annually, during which children in kindergarten learn about puppy love. In Norway, the Puberteen series takes things up a notch. The series shows explicit sex ed to children between 8 and 12. For me, this gives strong evidence that early and honest conversations are better than avoiding the topic and fear.
India. Like several countries in the world, culture also impedes sexual education in India. When the conversation around sexual education in India raged years ago, former health minister Harsh Vardhan opined that it should be banned. He believed that sex education “offended Indian values.” But thankfully, sexual education in India has persisted, furthered by the Y.P. Foundation across the country. This improvement is now seen in the data, not just in pregnancies and STIs but also in the strong improvement in the conversations around women’s rights, especially in rape. The group developed one of the best sex education curricula in the world. The curriculum teaches young people between 12 to 20 about gender equality, sexual diversity, and consent. It involves art, role-playing, and games. “One game we play is to ask people to act like a certain gender – for example, like girls in a playground,” says Manak Matiyani, director of the foundation. “Normally, the children act according to stereotypes, by walking in a particular way. Then we ask whether girls actually walk like that. We talk about where stereotypes come from and how to prevent them from dictating how we must be.”
We can look at countries where sex education is poor and look at the outcomes. In these below, the state does not get involved effectively due to cultural or religious reasons.
South Africa. From the time of apartheid until now, it’s impossible not to acknowledge progress on the sex education front. But it’s also true that progress has been slow. People still use threats to keep their children away from anything sexual. The information parents present to their children is always about the risks of having sex, with nothing on how to avoid those risks. In 2019, when South Africa’s Department of Basic Education came out with an expanded version of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, the pushback was massive. Organizations like Freedom of Religion S.A., the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), and the Concerned Young People of S.A. all opposed the development. ACDP even threatened to take the department to court. The organization believed that “parents should teach children about sex, not the state.” It can be presumed that not talking openly about sex is one of the reasons for the high rates of STIs and pregnancies. Unfortunately, there is also an astonishingly high level of sexual abuse. Any conversations about sex must include talking about sexual predators.
China. Sex education was never mandated in China until the 80s. Before then, during Chairman Mao’s reign under the communist Party, a puritanical air made sex almost a taboo subject. As a result, many parents in China would squirm to hear that their child has a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school. Sometime in 2011, two couples tried to get pregnant by lying next to each other for three years. Only half of the students in 30 secondary schools across six provinces and municipalities in China disagreed that ‘a woman cannot refuse to have sex with her husband’. Many students, especially ones in rural areas, have limited knowledge about contraception, HIV, safe sex, and consent. Children would rather go to their peers to ask about sex than go to their parents. Even with the implementation of sex ed across the country, the aversion to sex continues to shape the perception. When the China Family Planning Association started helping to provide sex education, it named it the Adolescent Health Programme to avoid unnecessary social pushback. This opposition stems from a collective concern that sex education can recruit children into alternative lifestyles. This shows that children will ask about sex. If the adults won’t talk about they are only left to talk to their peers.
Indonesia. Indonesia and South Africa share a similar trait. Young people get a barrage of warnings about the dangers of having sex without helpful information on averting those dangers. Parents see sex as a taboo subject they don’t need to discuss with their children. As a result, if a young girl gets pregnant by accident, she’s forced to wed the person responsible. Similarly, much of what constitutes formal sex education is also about threats and abstinence. However, schools have begun to develop comprehensive sexual education curriculums, especially private schools. This hasn’t been without pushback. “When we started up a sex-education module, at the end of 2017, it didn’t take long before the disapproving murmurings of parents were audible in the schoolyard. Sex before marriage is referred to as zinā in Java and is seen as unclean in the eyes of Islam, which is why parents and schools completely avoid the subject,” explains Pak Yanto Suryahadi, a principal and sex ed teacher in a village on the south-western coast of Java.
Ghana. The conversation about introducing sex education in schools across Ghana is controversial. Religious organizations in Ghana see comprehensive sex education as a backhanded attempt to promote queerness. “I call it comprehensive satanic engagement,” said Paul Yaw Frimpong-Manso, president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, on local radio station Joy FM. The backlash was so intense across Ghana that U.N. officials had to go on air to try and put the record straight. “They think it’s all based on foreign influence. That’s the issue,” said Niyi Ojuolape, country representative for the U.N. Population Fund in Ghana, emphasizing that Ghanaians designed the curriculum with the local context in mind. “The curriculum does not include LGBT issues explicitly, but of course, LGBT issues are human rights, so we talk about the rights of the individual to determine what they want to do,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Impact of Sex Education Around the World
Teenage pregnancy has risen, and so has the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections. As a result, over 2 million young people live with HIV worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Since then, countries have done their best to stem teenage pregnancy and rising infection rates among young people through comprehensive sex education. In places such as Romania, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, and the Middle East, sex education programs like Keep Me Safe, Plan International, MyQuestion and Karaz have taken the lead.
Despite this, rising teenage pregnancy and infection trends are still present worldwide, indicating that there’s still a long way to go. Scandinavian countries offer the most compelling evidence that honest sex education is the answer to teenage pregnancy and STI epidemic. Other western countries still have more work to do, but progress has been tangible. The cultural changes in the sub-continent and the Middle East are also positive as the position of women becomes more equal.
Final Thoughts on Sex Education Around the World
Around the world, sexual education is hampered by adult sensitivities. The result is the opposite one than the one that we want. Some of these challenges are avoidable. Introducing sex education without proper consultation with parents, educators, and other stakeholders won’t work. While the state means well, those at the receiving end of sex education are children whom parents are rightly eager to protect.
As parents, we can see that those countries with the most open and liberal sex education are those with the lowest pregnancy rates. Trying to keep sex out of your child’s life is pointless, like drugs and bullying, it is there. Being able to talk openly and frankly so you can educate your children is the best action.
If you enjoyed this article you might find of interest our articles on talking about alcohol and talking about drugs. We also look more generally at parenting in different cultures.