Igor S.  Kon

Sex Education and HIV Prevention in France

(2008) Reproduced here with permission of the author.




Tackling AIDS is a priority for Russia.  For the first time ever, a lot of money has been earmarked for this purpose.  But how will it be spent?  When reasonable people (and countries) are faced with a significant and novel problem, they usually start by looking at the experiences of others, noting any successes.


International practice clearly indicates that sex education for young people is a key element in AIDS prevention. In Russia, politicians and the media beg to differ.  According to Ljudmila Stebenkova, chairperson of Moscow City Council's public health commission, the most advanced western countries, notably the USA, long ago rejected «safe sex» as just a myth; they now advocate total abstinence before marriage.  Confidence in condoms is particularly misplaced.  The eighth-grade «human biology» textbook strikes a cautionary note: «recently, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the need to use male condoms.  It should be remembered, however, that not even condoms offer full protection against disease.  Medical professionals think that viruses are so small that they can even pass through latex».

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?

Sexologists throughout the world, including in the USA, are united in denying their effectiveness.  Since 1998, the American voluntary organization  «Advocates for Youth» has maintained an internet site http://www.advocatesforyouth.org, which compares sexual health indicators of teenagers in the USA, Germany, France and the Netherlands, and the indicators for the European countries are invariably better.

After comparing certain indicators for the USA and France taken from a global sex survey carried out by Durex in 2005, in which 317 000 adult men and women from 41 countries took part (http://www.durex.com/cm/gss2005results.asp), I arrived at the same conclusions; judge for yourself.

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 America? «Advocates for Youth» claim that social policy makes the difference.  According to them, in Western Europe, unlike the USA,

-       adults respect young people and believe that they are capable of acting responsibly;

-       sex policy is based on scientific data and not on the interests of political or religious groups;

-       workable solutions are applied to problems and diseases, including broad access to education, contraception, etc;

-       the media is the ally of the Government rather than an adversary, campaigns rely on humour rather than on scaremongering and deception;

-       national health services ensure that young people have access to free or low-cost contraception;

-       sex education is not required to be taught as a separate subject, it may be incorporated in other school subjects and taught at all grades of education;

-       educators provide accurate and detailed answers to students' questions;

-       families have open and honest discussions with teenagers about sexuality and help educators and health professionals to develop a sex education curriculum;

-       adults see intimate sexual relationships as normal and natural for older adolescents, as a positive component of emotionally healthy sexual maturation, and adolescents consider that unprotected sex is stupid;

-       sexual morality is underpinned by a personal philosophy that incorporates the values of responsibility, respect, tolerance and equality;

-       France, Germany and the Netherlands strive to take account of cultural diversity in respect of immigrants whose values may differ from those of the majority.

But maybe «Advocates for Youth» are wrong, all the more so as the USA and France are different countries with different cultures and traditions.  I decided to test their opinion using the example of our old friend France. 

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 France.  It was only in 2002, in time for the second edition, that Michel Meignant managed to assemble a team of 8 authors, yet the section on sex education in France is practically non-existent 1.

The most 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 ground in Paris.  I have gained the following impressions.


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 gallant France.  "What has the sexual act, so natural, so necessary, and so just, done to mankind, for us not to dare talk about it without shame and for us to exclude it from serious and decent conversation? We boldly pronounce the words 'kill,' 'rob,' 'betray'; yet this one we do not dare pronounce, except between our teeth. Does this mean that the less we breathe of it in words, the more we have the right to swell our thoughts with it?"  Thus Michel de Montaigne mused caustically in the sixteenth century. 6  The poetry of the mediaeval troubadours, the poems of François Villon, the works of Brantome and François Rabelais are filled with a joyous, mischievous eroticism, deeply rooted in popular culture.

French art and literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was renowned throughout Europe for its cult of women, of love poetry and refined eroticism.  Suffice to recall Denis Diderot's «Indiscreet Jewels» or Choderlos de Laclos' «Dangerous Liaisons».  Side by side with proper, «decent» literature, censored works by so-called libertines such as the Marquis de Sade were widely popular among the educated classes.  In the nineteenth century, significant new facets of our understanding of love, sexuality and «sentimental education» were revealed by French romanticism and critical realism (Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant and many others).

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 «Eugene Оnegin» (Chapter 1, verse IX):

-         The fervour of the heart torments us early.

-         Enchanting fiction,

-         not nature teaches us love,

-         but Staël or Chateaubriand.

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 France.  The author of «Madame Bovary» was acquitted because the passages that constituted «an outrage to public morals», «although deserving all kinds of censure, occupy a very small part of the work as a whole», and «Gustave Flaubert himself declares his respect for virtue and all that pertains to religious morality» 8.  In contrast, Charles Baudelaire was convicted and six poems in «Les Fleurs du Mal» were censored until 1949.

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 France, as everywhere else, a highly developed erotic awareness was essentially the preserve of the upper classes.

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 France) still speak of the danger of «medicalizing» sexuality and sex education 16. But the real factor behind Durkheim's objections was fear:  This can only lead to no good.

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 1863 a certain Brother Colinaud was convicted of molesting 16 boys, some of whom were under 11 years of age.   Society preferred to turn a blind eye to infatuation and sexual relations between boys, yet this sort of thing is vividly described in French classical literature, for example the works of Roger Martin du Gard and a number of "school novels" including the autobiographical «Special Friendships» by Roger Peyreffite and «The Boys» by Henri de Montherlant.

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 Russia, Andrej Voznesenskij wrote a fine poem on the similar  theme.

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 in 1920, a ban that lasted until the end of the 1960s.

In teaching 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 diagrams of the human body omitted the genitalia.  And this in a country where the naked form had long been a favoured subject of painting and sculpture.  Nudity galore in museums and the streets, but please, not in the classroom…

Meanwhile the world was moving on and teenage sexuality was experiencing a rejuvenation, creating new problems.  В 1967 France legalized contraception.  Who was going to provide the instruction manual?  Given that the main victims of sexual ignorance were women, women's organizations started the campaign for sex education.  The student revolution of 1968, which advocated sexual freedom among other things, was an important social milestone.  The rebellious university and secondary-school students enthused over the works of Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich.  Some teachers, disobeying their superiors, permitted secondary-school students to discuss these books in class, whereupon their opponents asserted, in Freudian terminology, that «school is  based on reality principle, not on pleasure principle » 17.

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.

The situation 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 11 July 1973 the Ministry of Health set up the Commission for Sex Information, consisting of representatives of various voluntary organizations (including the movement for family planning) and physicians.  The Commission was given the responsibility of setting general policy guidelines on planned parenthood and developing family education policy. On 23 July 1973 the Minister of Education, Joseph Fontanet, promulgated an order authorizing the inclusion of «sex information» in secondary-school biology lessons, albeit as an option outside the core curriculum.  The concept of «sex information» stressed the «purely scientific» side, whereas discussions about «sex education» were characterized by a concern to strike a balance between sexuality and traditional family values.  This was a typical attempt to pour new wine into old bottles.  In 1976 the curriculum was again amended, but as before sexuality was reduced to reproduction, which itself was divided into anatomy and physiology.  Hot topics such as attitudes to abortion and birth control were passed over in silence.  Today experts blast optional sex education as «thirty years of failure».

Publishers and 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 France is finally emerging from a long period of ignorance about sexual matters, the publication of this remarkable encyclopaedia is a landmark event». 18  Since then, a number of popular works aimed specifically at teenagers have been published in France.  These deal not just with reproduction, but also with «the joy of sex», and contain detailed descriptions and photographs of real genitalia, etc.


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 Paris, I personally witnessed a sensational television broadcast during which some very famous French actors showed viewers how to use condoms, mentioning in passing that they could also be used as aids to lovemaking.  Before the epidemic this would have been unthinkable.  A new concept of sexual responsibility emerged.  Systematic national studies were undertaken of the sexual behaviour and outlook of adults 19, and  especially teenagers 20, and the findings were earnestly and constructively debated in the media.

Attention has focused on high-risk groups such as homosexuals.  Homosexuality was decriminalized in France as early as 1810, but gay organizations remained on the fringes of society.  It was now widely accepted that, unless the gay community is enlisted in the fight against AIDS, it will be impossible to wage this campaign effectively.  At the invitation of the eminent sociologist Michael Pollack I attended the conference at the Ministry of Labour at which the very first AIDS prevention partnership between the Government and gay organizations was announced, a partnership that is still thriving today.

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 4 July 2001, knowledge of and education in sexuality is to be taught in schools, colleges and lycées in the form of at least three annual courses for children in similar age groups.  In primary schools, sex education is taught by teachers as part of the general curriculum, whereas in colleges and lycées it is taught by specially trained teachers.

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 adulthood …
...Sex education at school is inseparable from biological knowledge about the development and functioning of the human body, but perhaps more importantly, it also includes discussion of psychological, emotional, social, cultural and ethical issues.  It should cover the whole range of complex and varied situations experienced by men and women in their interpersonal, family and social relationships.  There should be a place in schools for sex education based on the humane values of tolerance, freedom and respect for oneself and others, conducted in a manner that does not encroach upon the family or insult the beliefs of individuals, provided that it affirms all these common values and is respectful of different lifestyles » 22.

These general goals are fleshed out in teaching guidelines.  Students must be taught:

-       To understand how self-image is constructed through relations with others;

-       To analyse the purpose, problems, limits, taboos and meaning of mutual respect in the context of gender and generational differences;

-       To identify and combine various aspects of human sexuality (biological, emotional, psychological, legal, social, cultural and ethical);

-       To develop the ability to critically assess sexual stereotypes and social roles peddled by the media;

-       To promote the values of individual and collective responsibility, particularly with regard to safe behaviour and protection of oneself and others;

-       To locate and make use of additional sources of information, assistance and support, both inside and outside school.

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:

-         Human sexuality

-         The law and sexuality

-         Sexual maturity

-         From sexual awakening to the encounter with the Other

-         Sexual identity, roles and stereotypes

-         Contraception and the desire for a child

-         Prevention of STIs

-         Money and sexuality

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.


What is new in this socioeducational strategy?

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 MontparnasseTower; from here the view of Paris is better than from the EiffelTower.  It has an excellent reference library and is staffed by counsellors who provide a free answering service to children and adults (either in person, over the telephone or via the Internet) on any sexuality or health-related issue.  The basement houses the so-called Cybercrips, where teenagers aged 13 and over are welcome and may come and go freely.  This facility runs courses designed for groups on AIDS prevention, STIs, drug dependency, smoking and other habits damaging to health, using an array of techniques and teaching aids with the potential to enthral teenagers and adults alike.  No instruction is offered on how to be a better lover, but condoms and lubricants are distributed free of charge.

Television and 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 Russia, the French authorities fund and control the output of high-quality educational television and radio programmes for young people and pay for them to be advertised and broadcast.  Adverts for condoms are a priority.  A special TV advertising campaign featuring messages such as «HIV and STIs are spreading, so stay faithful to your condom!» and «Women prefer men who've got one » was run in 2004.

The assertion made in Russian school textbooks that «viruses are so small that they can even pass through latex» is unheard of in Paris, and the existence of taxpayer-funded posters proclaiming the impossibility of safe sex would  inevitably attract sharp criticism from physicians and educationalists (everyone else would simply laugh).  It might also create a political scandal or even lead to a wholesale change in municipal government - the French do not take kindly to their money being wasted, especially in a manner likely to endanger their children's safety...

French physicians, 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 dreams» «How to say no … nicely» «Can you dupe your parents?».  But this packaging nevertheless unobtrusively conveys information about protection against AIDS and other potential problems, and teenagers read it.

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 Russia would, I fear, cause an outcry …

Как выглядят мальчикиКак себя обследовать?Пенис и его размерыГруди у женщин тоже разныеДевочкам о презервативах

Another 52-page 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 on one Moscow talk show, none of the adults had a clue.

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 France.  There are a number of special State-sponsored channels for teenagers and young people that aim to provide answers to any questions and concerns, free of charge and anonymously.  This is simpler than travelling to Cybercrips.  There are also a number of different telephone helplines, including a «gay line» for those worried about their sexual orientation.

The issue of sexual minorities is a matter of particular concern.  France is a civilized country and people are not afraid of homosexuality.  However, teenage boys, who still need to prove to themselves and others that they are «real men», can be just as intolerant as elsewhere.  Whence the special efforts being made to take on teenage homophobia.

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 Russia such material  would be termed «homosexual propaganda», but in Paris it is part of the campaign to prevent HIV and STIs.  The same concern is extended to people infected by HIV.  A recent TV programme produced by INPES is entitled «AIDS, Summer 2006. Together Let's Fight HIV-positive Discrimination».

«New French» immigrants from Africa and Muslim countries pose a particular problem.  In 2003, African immigrants accounted for 47% of new cases of heterosexual HIV infection and persons of uncertain nationality accounted for 22%. A sensitive approach is called for to redress the situation.

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 France's new sex education strategy is a complete success? Of course not.  Schools remain the weakest link in the chain.  Academic sociologists, teachers, teenagers and parents who I spoke to were unanimous in their belief that not enough is being done.  By no means all the officially proclaimed principles are being put into practice. Instead of the three annual courses envisaged by the statute, most schools have organized just one, and even then not everywhere.  Many subject teachers have not even heard of the new responsibilities assigned to them and have no intention of spending precious classroom time on discussing sexual matters.  The kids are generally positive about the lessons run by outside specialists, but many lycée students object to the presence of their teacher, as stipulated by the law.


At a parallel youth summit organized at the initiative of the Russian President during the recent summit of the eight major industrialized countries in St Petersburg, a French lycée student, speaking on behalf of his delegation, proposed to European Heads of State that they should make available free condoms to young people.


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.

Although the French sex education system is far from ideal, national statistics in this field are much better than comparable data from America.  The increase in the number of people infected by HIV here is no higher than the number of infected persons in other West European countries, and occurs mainly in marginal groups.  The dramatic lowering of the age of first sexual experience between the 1970s and the 1990s appears to have halted.  According to preliminary data from the «Health Barometer 2005», in the 15-19 age bracket 53.9% of men and 46.0% of women have had a sexual encounter, of whom 16.8% (17.7% of boys and 15.8% of girls) had their first sexual experience before the age of 15. 24 The indicators for the previous survey carried out in 2000 (of which the findings have been published in full) were higher: 21.3% of 15-year-olds (25% of boys and 17.7% of girls) had some previous sexual experience; 31% of these had had their first sexual encounter aged 13 or under, 46% aged 14 and 23% aged 15 25.  However, an increase in or stabilization of the age of first sexual experience has been observed in many countries in the last 10 years, but this finding does not correlate with the nature of sex education.

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 France, because young people know what precautions to take.  Whereas in the mid-1980s less than 5% of teenagers used condoms and more that half had unprotected first-time sex, in 1995 over 80% of first sexual encounters were protected, and in the period 1999-2001 this figure was between 85 and 90% 26.

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 Russia.  However, without exception, the data from all the sample studies brought together in my book «Sexual culture in Russia:  The Gooseberry Bush and the Little Russian Birch Tree» (2nd edition, Moscow, 2005) paint an extremely alarming picture: high levels of sexual activity among young people (no question of abstinence before marriage) coupled with extremely low levels of sexual culture result in enormous numbers of unwanted pregnancies and abortions and record levels of STIs and HIV infection.  Let me cite some recent figures.


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 16.6 in the 20-30 age bracket.  Of these, 26.5% of respondents had had their first sexual encounter under the age of 16, and 35.6% between the ages of 16 and 17.

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 35 in four Russian provinces (Ivanovo, Saratov, Orenburg and Irkutsk), conducted as part of the «Health of Russia 2020» project sponsored by the American Johns Hopkins University (2005) (see the full text of the report at http://www.fzr.ru; for a summary, see http://www.neuro.net.ru/sexology/info163.html), it emerged that 18% of 15-year-old youths had already had sexual relations; this figure rose to 39% among 16-year-olds and 56% among 17-year-olds.  One third of male and one fifth of female unmarried 14-17-year-olds had had a sexual encounter in the previous 12 months.  Of the respondents whose first sexual encounter had occurred before the age of 17, 26% had been with a non-steady partner (friend, acquaintance, neighbour, etc.) or a casual acquaintance.  Religious and/or moral grounds for sexual abstinence were cited by 14% of adults (3% of men and 11% of women) and just 7% of 14-17-year-olds (far fewer than in my 1993 survey).  In more than 50 per cent of cases, the most recent (or current) pregnancy was unplanned.  At 91 per cent, practically all recent teenage pregnancies were unplanned. Very few respondents had visited a medical facility for reproductive or sexual health advice.  Just 4% of youths aged between 14 and 17 had ever seen a reproductive health specialist.  Even after self-detection of STI symptoms, a half of all men and a third of all women had not sought help or treatment.

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 Moscow only 11% of young men and 15% of girls aged between 14 and 18 have discussed sexual problems with their parents, and in Ufa and Novgorod they are twice or even three times less likely to do so.  Although just 12% of respondents described themselves as atheists, the influence of religion on students' sex lives is negligible.  The use of contraceptives is poorly understood; roughly 60% of young men and less than half of young women took precautions during their first sexual encounter.  The prevalence rate of STIs is extremely high.  In comparison with students from other countries, and with the exception of Bulgarians, Russian students are the least likely to use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and STIs, preferring to rely on ineffective traditional methods.  And we are talking here about most enlightened section of our young people …

It comes as no surprise that Russia has one of the highest rates of abortion and HIV infection in the world.  So perhaps we should stop our demagoguery and follow the example of France, in the manner of our illustrious forbears in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  If, as we have seen, the development of a rational approach to sexuality has been long and painful even in France, then we, with our history of serfdom and totalitarianism and our habit of refusing to talk about the most important issues, have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.  Alas, it is not that simple.  And the problem is not so much the fundamental difference between our respective sexual cultures, which are contradictory and incoherent in both countries.

First of all, in Russia there is no mass access to the Internet where teenagers could get all necessary information and assistance irrespective of the level of education or tolerance of their teachers and parents.  The Ministry of Education is currently promising to provide schools with unlimited Internet access, but it is hard to imagine such access being free of control, or students being allowed to download information that the school authorities disapprove of or do not understand.

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.

Lastly, in Russia there are very few essentially competent experts on sex education, and the authorities pay them no attention.  Russian sexology ekes out a pitiful existence.  The only professional (medical) journal on the subject, «Sexology and Sexopathology», lasted four years before closing down in 2006 for want of funding (unlike commercial erotica, academic journals are unable to pay their way).  But that isn't all.  An all-out war to the death is being waged against sex education.  The first victim at the end of the 1990s was the Russian Family Planning Association, which saw itself accused of all sorts of mortal sins including advocating condom use, i.e. the very method used by Western countries to halt the AIDS epidemic.

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 USSR by agents of the CIA.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, American fundamentalists were asserting that sex education in schools was "a dirty communist plot designed to undermine the spiritual health of American youth."


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.

So Russia is unlikely to learn useful lessons from France or indeed anywhere else, she will go her own sweet way.  The destination?  As the French say, "qui vivra verra".


  1. See The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. Updated, with More Countries. NY: Continuum 2002, pp.212-230

  2. Lelièvre, C. et Lec, F. Les profs, l'école et la sexualité. P. Odile Jacob, 2005

  3. Bernard, S. and Clement, P. Teaching human reproduction and sexuality: A historical approach in France since 1950 http://www.ihpst2005.leeds.ac.uk/papers/Bernard_Clement.pdf.

  4. I am deeply grateful to the Franco-Russian Centre for Social Sciences and the Humanities in Moscow (and personally to Aleksej Berelovic) and  Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris.

  5. Alain Giami (INSERM), Michel Bozon (INED), Thierry Troussier (French Health Ministry), Mark Ganem, ex-president of WAS, Stephane Delaunay (INPES), Laura Beltran (CRIPS), Ghariba Sekiani (CRIPS), Elisa Jasmin (Sciences-po), Marie Mendras (Sciences-po), Jeffrey Lazarus (WHO) and others.

  6. Montaigne, ?. Essays, Book 3, ?oscow, 1960, p. 84

  7. The Life and Adventures of Andrej Bolotov, described by him for his descendants. 1738 -1793. ?oscow-Leningrad. Academia, 1931. Vol. 1, p. 444-447.

  8. In Maurois,  ?. Literary Portraits. ?oscow. 1970, p.190

  9. Aymé, ?. The Green Mare. Moscow. 1992, p.164, 163

10.   Hériat, P. The Bussardels. ?oscow. 1961, p. 333

11.   See Sohn A.M. Du premier baiser a l'alcove: la sexualité des Francais au quotidien (1850 -1950).. Paris. Aubier 1996 .

12.   See, for example,  Histoire de la vie privee. Sous la direction de P. Aries et de G.Duby. T. 1-5. P.: Seuil, 1987

13.    Histoire du Corps. Sous la direction de A.Corbin, J.J. Courtine, G. Vigarello. Vol 1-3. P.: Seuil, 2005

14.   As well as Foucault's famous "History of Sexuality", a number of historical studies on this theme have been published in France, for example Flandrin, J.-L.  Le sex et l'Occident. Evolution des attitudes et des comportements. P. Hachette, 1981;  Houbre, G. La discipline de l'amour. L'education sentimentale des filles et des garcons a l' age du romantisme.  P.: Plon 1997; Sohn, op. cit

15.   Durkheim É Débat sur l'éducation sexuelle/ Extrait du Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 11, 1911, pp. 33 - 47 // Emile Durkheim, Texts. 2. Religion, morale, anomie. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1975, pp. 241 - 251.

16.   Giami, A. La medicalisation de la sexualité. Aspects sociologiques et historiques//Andrologie, vol.8, N 4, 1998, pp.383-390; Bozon, M. Sociologie de la sexualité. Paris:Armand Colin, 2005,  chap.9;  Kon I.S. Sexology. Moscow. Akademia, 2004

17.   Lelièvre et Lec, p. 131

18.   Cohen, J. et al.  Encyclopedie de la vie sexuelle. De la physiologie a la psychologie. P. Hachette, 1973

19.   Spira, A.,  Bajos, N., Bejin A., et al.  Les Comportements sexuels en France. Paris: La documentation Francaise, 1993;  Bajos, N.,  Bozon, M., Ferrand, A, Giami, A., Spira, A. (eds.) , La sexualité aux temps du sida. Paris, P.U.F. 1998; Giami, A., Schiltz, M.-A., (eds).    L'experience de la sexualité chez de jeunes adultes : entre  errance et conjugalité. Paris, Editions Inserm, 2004;  Les connaissances, attitudes, croyances et comportements face au VIH/sida en France. Evolutions 1992 -1994 -1998 - 2001 -2004. Etude ANRS-ENIS-KABR 2004. Paris, 2005

20.   Lagrange H. et Lhomond B. (eds). L'entrée dans la sexualité. Le comportement des jeunes dans le contexte du sida.  Paris: La decouverte, 1997.

21.   Circulaire n° 98-234 du 19 novembre 1998, Éducation à la sexualité et prévention du SIDA).

22.   L'éducation à la sexualité dans les écoles, les collèges et les lycées .=CIRCULAIRE N°2003-027 DU 17-2-2003

23.   Education a la sexualité. Guide d'intervention pour les colleges et les lycées. Ministère de l'Education nationale, de l'Enseignement superieur et de la Recherche. Direction de l'enseignement scolaire Centre national de documentation pedagogique. 2005

24.   Barometre santé 2005. Premiers resultats. Sous la direction de P.Gilbert, A.Gautier P: Editions INPES, 2006

25.   Barometre santé 2000. Les comportements des 12-25 ans. Synthese des resultats nationaux et regionaux. Vol. 3.1. P: Editions INPES, 2004

26.   ??. Bozon, M. Sociologie de la sexualité, p.53,  Barometre santé 2005, pp. 110-113

27.   Kosterev, ?. Daddy Can! The Fruits of Sex Education //Men's Health, October 2006, pp.152-158


English translation by the UNAIDS