Sex education in Ukraine. How to talk to your child about sex and when to expect it from schools
Is there a chasm between our country and sex education? We explain how it works in other countries and what to expect from Ukraine
A recently published study by the Copus think-tank in partnership with Info Sapiens showed disappointing results on the state of sex education in Ukraine. Although the majority, i.e. 84% of parents, supported sex education in schools, it turned out that more than a third of teachers and parents aren't really ready to give a healthy and adequate education: their judgments are filled with stereotypes and myths, as evidenced by the data. For example, many teachers agree with the statements:
- a girl wearing a short skirt and bright makeup encourages boys to advances—63%;
- non-straight orientation requires treatment—36%;
- abortion should be prohibited in Ukraine—33%;
- young people who've had several sexual partners are promiscuous—31%;
- discussing contraception pushes children to start/have a more active sexual life—23%;
- having sex before marriage is shameful—27%;
- HIV-positive children shouldn't study with other children—19%.
What kind of sex education can we talk about with such indicators?
The opinions on what it should be are colossally different. So, for instance, in May last year, the Association of Sexologists and Psychotherapists of Ukraine issued a statement, which received a storm of criticism in social networks and the media. The headline was loud: "STOP SEXUAL EDUCATION IN UKRAINE."
"The Association of Sexologists and Psychotherapists of Ukraine is against the sexual education of children*" is highlighted in red in the subtitle, and below, one can see footnote: *education through the promotion of homosexual relationships, the destruction of family values and moral and ethical foundations.
Later, in an interview, a member of the organization, Mykhailo Shevchenko, explained that children under 12 shouldn't be told about homosexuality, because it is the time when they realize their gender role in society. Sexologists of the Association presented homosexuality as a deviation, and for this, were severely criticized by representatives of the LGBT community.
It's not yet known whether they'll include a sex education lesson for children in the school curriculum. The matter doesn't go beyond the brief comments of the authorities. At the beginning of this year, Education Minister Anna Novosad stated she wasn't against sex education, but noted that first, you needed to decide what it would be: "If you say that we should talk openly about sexual orientation, and about sex education in general, then I think that sex education in school is important, but we still have to find approaches to how to implement it. Now I don't have a prepared answer on how to achieve it as not to make it an idea that can be discredited," she said.
However, sex education is essential. Many experts believe so; international organizations, like the UN and UNESCO, also advise for it. Sex education is primarily a tool to make sure the younger generation has enough knowledge on key topics: contraception, safety, sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect themselves from them; and also not distorted perception of sex, and so on. Only 34% of the world's youth demonstrate adequate knowledge of HIV transmission and prevention. Sex education is designed to raise awareness of this and other key topics among young people to make their lives safer.
How is sex education viewed in other countries?
Naturally, for sex education to appear in Ukraine, it's necessary to define its concept. Like all innovations that have appeared in Ukraine, we can also borrow some approach from other countries, considering the mental characteristics, education, and perception of sex in our country. Let's look at how sex education continues to be incorporated into curricula in European countries.
Germany is an excellent example, where sex education is seen as a public task, and the responsibility for it lies with the state authorities, community organizations, and the Federal Center for Health Education, which develops general concepts for education. Sex education in Germany is aimed at increasing knowledge about the reproductive cycle, body changes during puberty, the effectiveness of various methods of contraception. Its goal is to form a positive attitude towards sexuality, with responsibility for oneself and a partner.
Sex education in Germany began back in the 1950s. Initially, it was aimed at awareness of the physiological characteristics of the body, and later, it gradually became less "puritan." However, the question, so actively discussed in Ukraine, about if we should tell children about homosexuality in sex education lessons, also arose in liberal Germany as well. In 2016, when they wanted to add explanations for gender diversity to the curriculum, supporters of conservatism took it to public demonstrations, demanding to stop promoting homosexuality.
The figures show the effectiveness of the approach to sex education in Germany. According to the Federal Education Center, the number of teenage pregnancies fell by half between 2004 and 2013, and German youth are showing a high level of awareness of human physiology, a responsible approach to contraception, and better communication skills in talking with partners and parents about sex.
In Poland, sex education classes are provided as part of the optional "Education for Family Life" course. The subject was introduced in 1973, but because of the potent influence of the Catholic Church, it was removed from the curriculum. It appeared in school programs only 34 years later, in 2007. Now Polish society is literally split into two fronts. In October of this year, there were several demonstrations with "homophobuses," the buses that drive around the city with the slogans "What does the LGBT lobby want to teach children? Masturbation, consent to sex, first sexual experience, and orgasm. Stop pedophilia!" The protests are organized by supporters of radical parties opposing sex education because they believe that the lessons "increase the interest of teenagers in pornography" and "encourage more frequent sex."
However, Poland isn't the only country where there are clashes between supporters of "traditional" and "new" sex education. Whether we should teach children about homosexuality, masturbation, contraception, and self-identification is debated wherever the school curriculum includes sex education. In the UK, after revising approaches to sex education, a clause on LGBT communities was added to the curriculum which angered the parents of schoolchildren, which is why this topic hasn't been raised in the lessons of some schools yet. Otherwise, the updated program can be called quite progressive, as it involves addressing problems that the younger generation may encounter in the digital age, for example, the issue of digital security and sexting, i.e. sending sexual photos and sexual correspondence.
When it comes to European countries in general, the Nordic countries are considered to be more developed in terms of sex education. The document states it, describing the policy of the EU countries in this area. For example, in Finland, the subject of Health Education is compulsory for students aged 13-15. In the classroom, children are taught about menstruation, pregnancy, intercourse, contraception, first sexual experience, dating and sexually transmitted infections, and ejaculation, abortion, sexual ethics, emotions, and sexual minorities.
In Scotland, sex education for children begins at an earlier age: from the age of 5, they are taught about body parts and animal reproduction; from 7, about puberty and sexual intercourse, and older students about contraception and safe sex. The subject is optional. If parents want to give this knowledge to their child on their own, they can attend the Speakeasy course, where they will be taught how to talk with the child properly on sensitive topics.
How to talk to children about sex and where to get the info you need?
Apparently, Ukraine will strive for such a European level of sex education for a long time. It's not worth hoping that such law drafts will be created, and even more so, that they'll be able to pass through long legislative corridors, so parents must independently take care of their children's sex education.
The key thing that psychologists advise is to stop considering this topic taboo in your family, to call things by their proper names, and not to pass on their own fears and experiences to children. The parents' task is to give the child a healthy understanding of physiological processes, to teach hygiene and personal boundaries, to talk about safety both in everyday life and online. If you aren't sure that you're ready for such conversations, books created for parents to read with their children will help you. You can refer to such literature from a very early age. For example, the Council of Europe brochure "Underwear Rules" is suitable for children from 2 to 3 years old, according to Yulia Yarmolenko, a sex teacher, author of sexual literacy programs for adults and adolescents. She has compiled a selection of 10 books to help parents answer awkward questions from their children. The psychologist warns:
- Never do as our parents did: Don't secretly place a book on a table or shelf. Thus, you show that you want the child to know everything on the topic, but aren't ready to talk about it.
- Be sure to read it yourself before giving it to your kid to understand what issues are raised in the book, what you'll have to discuss with your child.
- If your kid still can't read, and you feel a little awkward, admit it. Say: "This is an important topic. It is about hygiene, safety, relationships between adults. I'm a little embarrassed because when I was little, my parents didn't discuss such issues with me. But I will try not to be embarrassed. I hope for your support."
- If the child already knows how to read, but from time to time, you read books together, ask how she/he/they will be more comfortable studying the topic, together or independently. If your son or daughter decides to read on their own, say: "If you have any questions, come to me!"
- It's important to discuss any book after reading it. You can ask: "What did you like the most? What surprised you? What was new? What will you do differently now?" If the child doesn't engage, is embarrassed, doesn't wish to answer, then tell him/her/them what hooked you in the book, what you liked, what you believe is the most important, which drawing seems the cutest and most interesting.
- Remember, it's great if both parents are involved in sex education. Discussing a book together is more fun, more useful, and more interesting!