International practice clearly indicates that sex education for young
people is a key element in AIDS prevention. In
If «safety» is taken to mean 100-per-cent security, there is no such thing. You might just as well say that, because road safety is a figment of the imagination, it is pointless to teach children the Highway Code, so they should never learn to drive and never set foot in the street. Especially after the Beslan tragedy, you can talk yourself into believing that it is not possible to guarantee public safety, so the care of our precious organs (no pun intended) is simply a waste of public money.
Nobody in the world reasons like this, of course. The Bush administration's support for programmes advocating sexual abstinence until marriage, or even until the age of 29 (!), is motivated not by the defectiveness of condoms (as Ira Reiss, a noted American sociologist who foresaw the sexual revolution of the 1960s, pointed out: Condoms break far less frequently than vows of abstinence), but by moral considerations. The real question is: How effective are these programmes?
throughout the world, including in the
certain indicators for the USA and France taken from a global sex survey
carried out by Durex in
Americans become sexually active at an earlier age than the French - 16.9 years as against 17.2. However, the French have sex more often than Americans (120 times a year as against 113), and they have fewer sexual partners on average (8.1 against 10.7). They are less likely to watch pornography (33% as against 53% of Americans). They also engage in casual sex less frequently (42% as against 50%). A total of 51% of Americans have had unprotected sex (4% higher than the international average), compared with 42% of the French. Comparing American and French respondents, the number of unplanned pregnancies under the age of 16 is in the ratio of 4:1; between the ages 17 and 18, 5:3 and over the age of 19, 13:5. A total of 13% of Americans and 9% of the French have sexually transmitted infections (STIs); 5% of the French have practised sadomasochistic sex, as against 10% of Americans; 9% of the French and 20% of Americans had have had sex at school (!); and 11% and 21%, respectively, have had sex in front of a camera. As for the marriage and divorce statistics, the less said the better…
The French are more satisfied than the Americans with the state of their sex education. And their ideas about the aims of education for young people diverge somewhat. In reply to the question «What behaviour should be encouraged in young people?» 71% of Americans and 91% of the French replied «To practise safer sex» (on average, 74% of the global sample chose this reply). A total of 14% of Americans and 6% of the French recommended that young people should «check their health regularly» (the average according to the global sample was 16%), and 14% of Americans and 2% of the French recommended «sexual abstinence before marriage» (the average figure being 8%). So Ms Stebenkova's opinion that sexual abstinence if preferable to «safe sex» is evidently unpopular nowadays, not just among teenagers and sexologists…
Why then are
European statistics better than those for
But maybe «Advocates for Youth» are wrong, all the more so as the
It is hard to find readily available information on French sex
education. The editor of the authoritative International Encyclopaedia of
Sexuality, Robert Francoeur, says that he spent 10 fruitless years seeking an
author for the chapter on
authoritative (and highly critical) theoretical and historical works on this
subject appeared only in 2005. 2,3 With the kind assistance of several
French academic institutions 4 and colleagues 5, I have been able not
only to gain access to and to read academic literature and a number of official
documents, but also to acquaint myself cursorily with the situation on the
From time immemorial, at least since the Renaissance, the French have
had the reputation of being a highly sexed nation. Love and eroticism are part and parcel of
French art and literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
was renowned throughout
French amorous and erotic culture has exerted a strong influence on other nations. In the second half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, French novels served as a primer in «the art of love» for the sons of Russian noblemen.
The famous eighteenth century memoirist Andrej Bolotov confessed that he
gained his first «understanding of amorous passion, albeit in a most tender and
avowedly romantic aspect», from a translation of the French novel «Epaminonde
et Célériane»; however, French novels did not simply «cause [him] no harm», but
taught him to distinguish vice from virtue and to look upon everything with
«the most modest eyes». 7 Pushkin
subsequently refers to this phenomenon in «
As everywhere, works that were frankly erotic or considered to be so not
infrequently occasioned scandals. In 1857 two famous court cases took place in
The individualism and rationalism of French culture, in conjunction with
the principle that the State must not interfere in private life, has made it
impossible for the Catholic Church to prohibit sexual discourse, especially as
this discourse dovetailed neatly with traditional «family values», which have
always been held in high esteem in France.
The general opinion was that
everyone should discover the intimate secrets of life for themselves, and that
any interference in private life, either through external supervision or
compulsory education, is proscribed.
However – and this is most important - in
The traditional peasant way of life is everywhere equally incompatible both with sexual ignorance and sophisticated eroticism.
In the early twentieth century rural France of Marcel Aymé, teenage boys talk about and experiment with sex endlessly. «They would get together after school, measure their penises against blades of grass or, surprising some girl between two hedges, force her to strip naked. All of which was accompanied by ribald comments, which poured forth, as from a fountain, each bawdier than the next». Adult peasants have no time for erotic refinements: «When you must work by the sweat of your brow to sustain yourself off a scrap of land, there are not fourteen, nor twelve nor six ways of doing it; there is just one way, and it rarely occupies your thoughts. The men of Claquebuque have not only forgotten the stratagems of their youth, they have forgotten too that the delights of love figure prominently in their children's games or, more probably, they pretend not to know» 9.
Religious proscriptions did not prevent the ruling classes from introducing variety into their sex lives, although they exercised tight control over the sexual education of their children and teenagers. The situation of girls was particularly difficult. In aristocratic and bourgeois milieux, efforts were made to keep girls in a state of complete sexual ignorance right up until the twentieth century. Prior to marriage, their mother or an older female relative explained to the girl what to expect in her wedding bed, although this explanation was frequently incomprehensible or confused: «…Mother told her something obscure, abstract and superfluous. She mentioned, without explaining what they consisted of, certain secrets of life, advised her to be submissive, not to be disgusted by anything and not to think that her husband had suddenly taken leave of his senses. «Whatever gives a man pleasure, said Madame Clavier, in conclusion, is simply an obligation for a woman; there, now you know it all». 10
Drawing on archival material, in-depth historical research into the lives of the French during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, paints a frightening picture of sexual ignorance and of the resulting fear, tragic errors and abuses 11.
The sexual behaviour and values of the French have changed over time. Their behaviour has become less inhibited, and the way they talk about sex – more open, and most important of all, more diverse. This has stimulated philosophical reflection. The leading French philosophers of the twentieth century - Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and others - have written at length about the problems of eroticism and sexuality. French historical science owes its pre-eminent international position to studies of the history of private life 12, marriage and the family, the body 13 and love and sexuality 14 . Numerous British and American scholars have also studied these matters using French materials as a basis for their research.
The growth of individualism, the weakness of and lack of dialogue between institutions that traditionally ensure gender socialization (families, schools, churches, peer groups, the media etc.) and the diverging contexts in which sexual behaviour is considered (demographic, medical, legal, moral and religious discourse), have also brought to the forefront social and educational issues such as what young people should be taught, where they should be taught, and what method should be applied (Foucault calls this «the pedagogization of sexuality»).
If I am not mistaken, the first serious inter-disciplinary discussion of
the need to provide children with systematic sexual education and guidance took
place within a French philosophical society in 1911. Dr Doléris argued the need for «rational
education», but the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who was also a professor of
education and moral philosophy, objected to this position, emphasizing the risk
of trivializing sexuality and relegating it to a mere biological function. Instead he focused on moral values 15. In a theoretical sense Durkheim was right,
and sociologists (not only in
The completely understandable desire of parents and teachers to shield children from "dangerous" and "undesirable" sexual information has to all intents and purposes degenerated into an unwillingness to acknowledge and assume responsibility for what is happening: We did not teach our children this, so we cannot be held responsible, yet we refuse to allow anybody else to encroach on this domain.
An instructive work by the sociologist Claude Lelièvre and the lawyer Francis
Lec, «Teachers, School and Sexuality» (2005) is not so much a history of the
teaching of sexuality (there was no such subject ) as a catalogue of sexual
relations between children and teachers and ensuing scandals, stemming from the
fact that teachers and students alike have traditionally been regarded as
completely non-sexual beings. When
schools were same-sex and administered by the Church, the central figures in
sex scandals were members of the clergy.
Although the Church and conservative circles tried to hush up cases
involving child abuse by priests, this conspiracy of silence was occasionally
shattered by high-profile court cases.
For example, in
The changeover from same-sex to mixed education, which was completed by
the 1960s and 1970s, ushered in new problems for schools in the form of
relations between the sexes and teacher-student relationships. Although the latter relationships are
considered beyond the pale and subject to criminal prosecution, not all such
cases can be considered "abuse".
In the late 1960s, the tragic story of the relationship between the
31-year-old teacher Gabrielle Russier and the 16½-year-old student Christian
Rossi caused a national furore, even serving as the basis for André Cayatte's
famous film «To Die of Love» starring the great Annie Girardot. In
As long as society
attempted simply to «exorcise» teenage sexuality and teachers were regarded as
guardians of order or potential seducers, there could be no sex education in
any meaningful sense, not even unofficial exchanges on this topic between
teachers and students. This was
dangerous and undesirable for both sides.
The dissemination of sexual information in schools was prohibited by law
biology or life sciences, of course, schools could hardly skirt round the
subject of reproduction, but such matters were explored using plants as
examples (ah, those stamens and pistils we used to giggle about in our prewar
fifth form!) or, if absolutely necessary, frogs and birds. It was only in 1966 that the Ministry of
Education took the audacious step of instructing schools to teach reproduction
using the example of mice. In the early
1970s school textbooks began to show pictures of frogs and horses mating, but
world was moving on and teenage sexuality was experiencing a rejuvenation,
creating new problems. В 1967
While the student revolution profoundly altered the attitude of French society towards sexuality by introducing more openness and realism, this did not filter down into school curricula and textbooks. Schools are inherently conservative institutions. In addition, the old notion of schools as temples or monastery-like refuges where nothing "impure" must be allowed to enter, and the naïve presumption of the "innocence" (i.e. asexuality) of the child whom knowledge can only corrupt, persisted in the public mind. Both ideas obviously hark back to religious sources.
gradually changed. Following criticism
from eminent philosophers and academics, it was finally decided to include the
study of human reproduction in the school curriculum. On
other non-State organizations stepped in where schools dared not or could not
tread. In 1973 the publishers Hachette
issued a inexpensive and well-illustrated five-volume «Encyclopaedia of
Sex. From Physiology to Psychology», of
which the first volume was aimed at children aged between 7 and 9 and their
parents, and the final volume at adults.
It was received enthusiastically by academics, including two winners of
the Nobel Prize for medicine, and welcomed in every section of the press, from
Catholic to Communist: «At a time when
The AIDS epidemic brought about a significant shift. In the 1980s it became clear to medical
practitioners and politicians alike that AIDS was not just a health issue, but
concerned the physical survival of the nation, and safe sex required
preparation and education. In 1987, for
the first time, permission was granted to advertise condoms not just as a means
of contraception, but also as a barrier against STIs. In the late 1980s, in
focused on high-risk groups such as homosexuals. Homosexuality was decriminalized in
However, the school curriculum was the same as in Joseph Fontanet's day. Significant developments had to wait until 1996-1998 when the old concepts of «sex education» «sex information» were replaced in official parlance by the term «education in sexuality» (L'éducation à la sexualité).
«The principal aim
of education in sexuality is to enable students to explore and understand
different aspects of sexuality in general, and their own sexuality, in a spirit
of respect for individuality and entitlement to intimacy. Such an education, based on humane values of
tolerance and freedom, of respect for oneself and others, must in addition help
students to internalize, in a positive way, values of individual, family and
social responsibility».21 In accordance
with Act No. 2001-588 of
The ministerial orders that flesh out the statute stress that education in sexuality is not a separate subject, but one that cuts across all disciplines, including literature, the fine arts, philosophy, history and legal science.
«As part of their educational mission and as a complement to the primary
role of the family in this sphere, schools must assume part of the
responsibility for ensuring the health of their students and preparing them for
These general goals are fleshed out in teaching guidelines. Students must be taught:
This is not simply bureaucratic verbiage, which exists in abundance in every country. The policy guidelines drawn up by leading French experts 23 list the principal topics of discussion:
For all these topics, the method as well as the content of the teaching is specified. Detailed guidance is provided for teachers. «Education in sexuality» is not an academic course in sexology; it is not a discussion of abstract theoretical models; instead the discussion centres around real-life situations and students' questions and includes an ongoing interactive component. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that students should have the opportunity to ask intimate questions and discuss their own personal problems in an unconstrained atmosphere.
Sexuality is regarded not as something self-contained, existing in a vacuum, but as a component of the social, cultural and emotional life of a developing individual. This approach is incompatible with the medicalization of sexuality.
Because sex education is designed to prepare teenagers for sexual life, on which they will embark without permission from their elders, there is no place here for sanctimoniousness (even though this is hypocritically labelled «the right to remain ignorant»).
Sex education cannot be confined exclusively to schools. Like it or not, children today get most of the information they need without input from their teachers or parents. This is natural and normal. Sexual experience, in which intergenerational differences and taboos loom particularly large, is no exception. It is much harder to train and retrain teachers than it is to teach students, and moreover teachers, like other representatives of authority, often misuse their power and do not earn the trust of their charges. Dr Thierry Troussier, the head of AIDS prevention at the French Ministry of Health, told me that instead of making schools entirely responsible for such matters, it is important to tap real-life opportunities and possibilities.
First of all, the authorities have sought help from nongovernmental organizations. Instead of giving teachers a crash course in «sexual matters» and then facing the headache of scheduling the training, etc., the authorities have instructed colleges and lycées to invite professionally trained experts from the French family planning movement and regional AIDS prevention and information centres (CRIPS) to take these classes. Both organizations have earned credibility and are funded by the regional authorities. Lessons in colleges for children aged 11-15 are taught by personnel from the family planning movement; CRIPS personnel are responsible for teaching 16-17-year-olds in lycées.
CRIPS headquarters is located on the twelfth floor of the famous
radio programmes and glossy magazines aimed at the youth market are also widely
used to teach sexuality. Instead of
berating the media for peddling "smut", as is customary in
The assertion made
in Russian school textbooks that «viruses are so small that they can even pass
through latex» is unheard of in
psychologists and educationalists are well aware of the need to talk to teenagers
in their own language. The National
Institute for Prevention and Health Education (INPES), founded in 2002, gave me
a copy of the June 2006 issue of its monthly magazine «Lycée Student». It is a typical glossy magazine aimed at
14-18-year-olds. The headlines of the
articles have nothing of the schoolroom about them: «What do guys want us to do?», «10 things to
get your romance off to a better start», «How far would you go for love?», «How
to have risk-free sex» «How to land the man of your dre
CRIPS issues excellent practical guidelines for experts. A book by the gynaecologist Nicole Athéa, who specializes in teenage health problems, and the psychologist Olivier Couder, «Talking to Teens About Sexuality » (2006), focuses less on physiology and protecting oneself against various perils, and more with emotional and sex-life problems. Without preaching, teenagers are warned of the falsity of hedonism («the dictatorship of pleasure») and why it is important to be sceptical about the quantification of sexual performance («how often and for how long?») and the fetish of technique (how to do it, whether to swallow sperm, etc.). The communicative, family context is heavily stressed in discussions with teenagers (for example, «How to talk about sex with your parents»).
Humour is always
used in material aimed at teenagers themselves. A small 15-page booklet entitled «Guide to
the male body» consists entirely of amusing comic-book cartoons with equally
amusing captions, but it addresses the central questions that obsess any
teenager: The stages and signs of sexual
maturity, penis size, the foreskin and circumcision, the testicles and the
scrotum, self-examination, masturbation, ejaculation and other matters. There are also 15-page booklets about and for
girls. By reading this material, boys
and girls are able to find out all sorts of things about each other without
looking through the bathroom keyhole.
The publication of such a booklet in
pamphlet entitled «Teenage matters» is aimed at 15-18-year-olds. With a similar tabloid-style levity it
discusses love, the body, sexuality, contraception, abortion, STIs, and
AIDS. At the same time it lists useful
telephone numbers and indicates where to go for information and what questions
to ask. The information is sketchy, but this is determined by the audience. To the question «Why use a lubricant?» asked
Where means permit, even theatre is used to plug a healthy lifestyle. A small company of three or four young actors puts on performances for an audience of no more than 100, or no more than 80 if most are boys. I have seen two such performances, one about drug dependency, the other (entitled «Not that easy … but not that tricky either!») about a first sexual encounter. There is no nudity or sex on stage. Audience participation is used to discuss real-life situations such as striking up an acquaintance and getting closer, and exploring the issues and problems that arise. There was much improvisation. The tone was humorous. The audience never stopped laughing.
A very important vehicle for sex education nowadays is the Internet,
which is accessible to everyone in
The issue of
sexual minorities is a matter of particular concern.
INPES is particularly proud of "We're All Together", a free
magazine produced in colour by its professional educators, which shows (in
scenes featuring actors) and discusses various situations involving male
homosexuality and the risks associated with these situations. In
When I was invited to CRIPS to sit in on a group session comprising 12 young people aged between 16 and 26, all of Arab and African origin, of whom two were men and 10 were women, I felt sure that there would be no spontaneous discussion - the male presence would inhibit the Muslim women, and the lads might react aggressively. How wrong I was. The young course leader Walid Benfatma, who is well acquainted with this milieu, got the participants talking without any problem. The appearance of a trestle table with 5 multicoloured phallus simulators initially caused slight embarrassment and laughter, but then the women managed to put condoms on the simulators without any hitches.
Can it be said that
At a parallel youth summit organized at the initiative of the Russian
President during the recent summit of the eight major industrialized countries
Socioeconomic inequality has a significant impact on the sexual culture and behaviour of young people. Children from poor and less well-educated families, particularly immigrants, have great difficulty assimilating the rules of gender equality, explaining the increase in sexual violence. Epidemiological indicators also correlate with social factors.
French sex education system is far from ideal, national statistics in this
field are much better than comparable data from
The age of initiation
into sex is not the sole or principal indicator of sexual health. More significant is the fact that the high
level of sexual activeness and the relatively low age of sexual initiation do
not result in unwanted pregnancies or abortions in
It appears that these good results are attributable less to the achievements of the French education system than to the sophistication of French sexual culture, which young people, free of taboos and accustomed to taking responsibility for themselves, absorb at their own pace. Adults merely facilitate their access to this culture.
Researchers are united in noting that young people today have more sources of information about sex than were available to previous generations, and this information has become more reliable, thereby promoting an increase in safe sex. Owing to the breaking down of social and age barriers, communication on sexual themes has increased markedly within the family unit: Teenagers today talk with their parents about sex more frequently and more openly that was acceptable in the past. Admittedly, this is confined mainly to the mother-daughter relationship (boys prefer to talk with their peers) and does not extend to information of a «technical» nature, so that, as before, the family cannot be considered an instrument for imparting sex education in the narrow sense.
It is hard to compare French and Russian indicators because, for one
thing, no national-based and sufficiently detailed professional sex surveys
have ever been carried out in
In a survey of a representative sample of Muscovites aged between 20 and
45 conducted by Levada-Centre in 2002, 83.0% of respondents answered in the
affirmative to the question «Do you think sex before marriage is OK and
acceptable?». The average age of
first-time sex was 17.1, and
Of the 3159 young Russian males (90.3% of whom were under 35) who participated in the international survey carried out by Men’s Health magazine in July 2006, 1.58% declared that they lost their virginity before the age of 12, 16.78% between the ages of 13 and 15, 44.25 % between the ages of 16 and 18, and 22.82% between the ages of 19 and 21.
In a very
professional representative survey of 4967 respondents aged between 14 and
The recent study
by М. Denisenko, «The Sex Life of Russian Students», which compares the
sexual behaviour of university students from nine countries (http://demoscope.ru/weekly/2006/0259/tema04.php)
has shown that, in terms of the number of casual sexual encounters, Russian
students have no rivals but the French.
Sexual activity often begins with strangers. Boys begin at the age of 17, girls at
18.3. Encounters with prostitutes are
widespread, and there are many instances of coercion. Parental influence is very weak; young
Russians talk with their parents about such matters much more rarely than
French students. In
It comes as no surprise that
First of all, in
Besides, Internet access on its own is not enough. There are no special socioeducational programmes for teenagers or young people in the Russian Internet or electronic media. Tawdry eroticism vies with homespun moralizing. Neither approach promotes AIDS prevention or safe sex. Teenagers reject, on the one hand, the same old pseudo-scientific rigmarole and sexual browbeating, and, on the other, oh-so-amusing anecdotes such as those trotted out by Men’s Health magazine in its October issue 27. Only sophisticated professionals are able to devise specialized programmes and materials geared to the requirements of today's teenagers, rather than of their great-grandmothers. Meanwhile, Russian politicians and large swathes of the media are concerned not with the development of sexual culture in the community, but exclusively with tightening the grip of censorship. No realistic sex policy can ever be built on this philosophy.
Today an unbridled campaign of slander has been unleashed not just against those Western nongovernmental non-profit organizations that are genuinely helping Russia to respond to the AIDS crisis, but also against the most enlightened and liberal Russian experts. This campaign is overtly ideological, following the old war cry that «genetics is the whore-child of imperialism», even to the extent of accusing academics of having ties to the CIA.
This is not the first time that the theme of a foreign conspiracy has
surfaced in the history of sexual culture.
In 1798 the Bishop of Durham eloquently attempted to convince the
British House of Lords of the subversive nature of French ballet: ''Despairing
of conquering England by force of arms, the Government of France has conceived
the more deliberate and subtle plan of tainting and undermining the morals of
our ingenuous youth. It has sent over to us a number of dancers who, through
the allurements of the most indecent attitudes and the most wanton theatrical
exhibitions, have completely succeeded in enervating and corrupting the morals
of our nation". One hundred and
seventy years later the prominent Soviet Stalinist author Vsevolod
Kočetov, in his novel "So What Do You Want?" (1969), wrote in
the same overheated style about the subversive dances imported into the
A campaign of homophobic rhetoric, totally unacceptable in a civilized society, is gathering momentum.
Attempts are being made to discredit sexology and discourage social scientists, liberal arts specialists, psychologists and educationalists from taking an interest in it. Without their input, academic research on human sexuality and sex education are all but impossible.
The ideological campaign is underpinned by commercial interests. A campaign to fight AIDS will compel the Government to fund some sort of sex education programme. The removal of potential overseas and domestic competitors and critics would enable the ignorant and unscrupulous, in alliance with corrupt officials and acting under the guise of patriotism tinged with religiosity, to help themselves to public funds, all the while using the media as a free advertisement for their own counselling centres and nonexistent academic achievements. So funds earmarked for the prevention of HIV infection will inevitably be looted and teenagers will be left to face up to AIDS on their own.
The principal difference between France and Russia is that, in France, attention is paid to the feelings, queries and needs of real people, whereas today in Russia, as in former Soviet times, command and administrative methods are preferred, since it is believed that only this approach can mould a «new kind of man» or (which is the same ) to bring about a return to a mythical, primordial «moral purity». Although nothing has ever come of these theories, mythmaking is still alive and well.