The Fight over UNESCO's Sex Ed Guidelines

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has had a team working on an amazing document called the Review of Sex, Relationships and HIV Education in Schools for the last two years. The document was scheduled to be released this week, and unsurprisingly, it has been delayed due to sex-negative complaints.

So I decided to take a look at the draft, which is available as a pdf here. And I have to say that I’m quite impressed. Before talking about the current controversy, I want to mention some highlights.

First, this document is based on a really thorough analysis of the research. Section 4 (The Evidence Base for Sexuality Education) shows that many comprehensive sex education programs designed to reduce rates of unintended pregnancy and STIs/HIV are effective. Many of the programs have the desired impact (e.g. increased condom use, decrease in number of sexual partners, decrease in sexual risks, etc.), while others had no impact. However, none of the programs increased the behaviors associated with higher risk. For example, they didn’t lead to earlier initiation of intercourse, more partners, or more frequent sex. Clearly, well-designed sex education doesn’t make youth have more sex, despite the rather rabid claims by the abstinence-only crowd.

Speaking of which, the authors also looked at the research on abstinence programs and found that they have no significant impact on condom use, age of intercourse, or the other factors that are associated with sexual risk taking. There are some methodological difficulties that make assessing them challenging. It’s almost as if the people who promote abstinence-only miseducation don’t want to admit that it doesn’t work.

I’m also really pleased with the assumptions that the authors made when writing the Review:

  • Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human life: it has physical, psychological, spiritual, social, economic, political and cultural dimensions.
  • Sexuality cannot be understood without reference to gender.
  • Diversity is a fundamental characteristic of sexuality.
  • The rules that govern sexual behaviour differ widely across and within cultures. Certain behaviours are seen as acceptable and desirable while others are considered unacceptable. This does not mean that these behaviours do not occur, or that they should be excluded from discussion within the context of sexuality education.

While these seem pretty obvious to me, it’s worth noting that sex education is often presented as if it isn’t affected by someone’s assumptions. When that happens, sex is discussed in a conceptual vacuum. We often do that in order to create some intellectual and emotional distance, perhaps in order to avoid sensitive or controversial topics, or because we believe that distance equals objectivity. In fact, all distance creates is distance and nobody is “objective” when it comes to sex.

I prefer to make my assumptions explicit than pretend that they don’t exist since to do otherwise is to give them more influence over the process. And anyway, when we make them explicit, we model the ways in which we can assess our assumptions, decide which ones we want to keep, and work them into our decision-making. My experience is that that’s much more effective than pretending to be objective, so I’m really pleased that the Review does the same.

It’s also really amazing that the Review includes a whole lot of learning objectives for 23 different topics (divided among 6 Key Concepts such as “Relationships” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health”). Not only that, but they offer age-appropriate objectives for 4 different age ranges (5-8, 9-12, 12-15, 15-18+), so there’s a lot to work with. They don’t offer curricula, since they need to be created in culturally-mindful ways by individual program developers. Since effective sexuality education, like every other topic, is most effective when it’s repeated over time with increasingly complex material, there’s a lot to work with here. (For another look at how this might work check out the Our Whole Lives curricula developed bu the Unitarian-Universalist Association.)

Clearly, I’m quite impressed with the Review and even though this is still an unfinished draft, I think that everyone interested in sexuality education should read it. And as always, not everyone agrees.

According to the NY Times, some anti-sex folks (mostly in the US) are attacking the document, claiming that discussions of homosexuality and letting people know that abstinence is “only one of a range of choices available to young people” who want to reduce their risk are morally wrong. They also think that telling 5 year olds about masturbation is wrong. Given that many kids discover how good it feels when they touch themselves, it only seems reasonable to me to talk about it. And here are the key ideas that have these folks worked up:

  • Most children are curious about their bodies
  • It is natural to explore and touch parts of one’s own body
  • Bodies can feel good when touched
  • Touching and rubbing one’s genitals is called masturbation
  • Some people masturbate and some do not
  • Masturbation is not harmful, but should be done in private

These seem pretty reasonable to me and they’re consistent with what we know about children and masturbation, but apparently this is too scary for some folks. And given that abstinence is, in fact, one of a range of choices that includes using condoms or engaging in less-risky behaviors, it’s pretty clear to me that what’s really working these folks up is that UNESCO is talking about sexuality in an honest and authentic manner, rather than promoting an erotophobic ideology that doesn’t fit the real world..

I’m also intrigued by the concern voiced in the NY Times article that sexuality education programs “remove responsibility from parents.” First off, just how well does it seem to be working to have parents be the sole source of sexuality information? As a general rule, not too well. And second, in what way does having a school-based program take responsibility away from parents? Why does a school program mean parents can’t talk about sex with their kids? If anything, the in-school discussions could facilitate talking at home, making it easier for parents to address their kid’s concerns and questions.

Here’s another quote from the NY Times:

“If you ever have a situation where kids need to be taught earlier than their adolescence, this is not the way to do it,” said Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute, an anti-abortion organization based in Virginia. “It’s very graphic and encourages practices like masturbation, which conservative Christians and others feel are wrong.”

So instead, he’d rather keep people ignorant until they become teens. But we know that lots of young people start exploring sex long before their parents know about it. We also know that young children are curious about their bodies, relationships, making decisions and other topics that are related to or part of age-appropriate sex education. If you want to help kids make better decisions, keeping them ignorant doesn’t work.

I’m willing to give most folks the benefit of the doubt and say that I believe that they want to keep young people safe. (I also recognize that there are many other reasons that people fear sex, especially when it comes to young people having sex.) And when you look at the research, when you look at what actually works, it’s clear that comprehensive, age-appropriate education is the best tool we have.

When facts conflict with your beliefs or ideas, you can either ignore the facts or change your mind (once you’ve checked the facts, of course). We know what the facts are. Now, we just need to act on them.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. GeoffCapp says:

    “I’m not a fan of facts. You see, facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.” -Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report

    Some body parts are simply dirty and evil and should be wiped out; they are certainly never to be touched or used for any purpose, nor even acknowledged by anyone but your preacher or doctor. Now go forth and exponentiate.</sarcasm>

  2. Dr Michelle Mars says:

    Excellent article, enjoyed reading it. Great to see also that a supranational organisation like UNESCO is Not offering bland and neutral advice on the subject of sex ed. Also very important is the reinforcing what sexologists know so well…. Abstinence based sex ed programs Don’t Work!
    Cheers Michelle

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