Reimagining Inclusive Sex Education: The Swedish Model
Incorporating subjectivity, intimacy, and diversity into sex education programs in our public school systems.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, so naturally, my sexual education was formatted within a religiously-charged context.
I started sex education in 5th grade when I was 10. I was an unusual case because I was a clean slate. I knew nothing about sex or my own anatomy. My parents never talked to me about sex or relationships and were never planning on it (I’m 23, and we’ve still never addressed it).
Being in a conservative and Christian town, sex education was almost exclusively factually and medically based and religiously biased. We learned about anatomy, diseases, treatments and prevention, and the science of (marital) sex.
Anything beyond those topics, or anything that didn’t have anything to do with procreative sex, wasn’t mentioned.
There was no talk of pleasure. No word of masturbation. No discussion of relationships or intimacy or love. And there was definitely no talk of anything beyond hetero-normative sexuality.
Orgasms were discussed within the context of male ejaculation and fertilization. And abstinence was heralded the best and only way to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, no condoms were passed out and we never practiced putting them on a banana.
I was learning a lot about sex, but within the understanding that marriage was the only truly acceptable context. I could adequately navigate a diagram of the female anatomy but I couldn’t navigate a healthy romantic or intimate relationship.
Exploring sex and sexuality outside of a classroom felt shameful, and my conception of sex felt academic, mechanical, and empty.
There little to no actual discussions. Our classes were built around puberty videos and slideshows. There seeded to be strict expectations never to veer from the standard curriculum.
One day, we had the opportunity to raise our hands and ask about specific topics that we were curious about. One girl requested masturbation. I’d heard the word before, but I had no idea what it could be, and my fear of God and my parents were too great to look it up myself.
The teacher wrote it down, but we never went over it. I didn’t find out what masturbation was until I was 15, and a boy asked me, “Do you masturbate?” to which I replied, “What’s that?”
My Swedish friend and I were discussing our encounters with sexuality and the Church, and I was surprised to hear he had very different experiences regarding sex education. His school had its own program, and they wanted to rethink how sexual education was approached.
I took away two radical concepts (radical relative to my experience) that were absent from my experience with sex education in the US:
#1. Open Discussion
By limiting the ability to have honest conversations with peers and ask questions without limitations and judgment, there was no room for me to create my own ideas about what sex and sexuality meant to me. The narrative was set for me, and it was religious and shameful.
Even if the narrative isn’t inherently religious, standardizing sexual perceptions and experiences can be damaging to a child’s personal growth. Regardless of narrative ‘categories,’ putting anything in a box naturally stigmatized and marginalizes ideas and perspectives that would be considered fringe or unconventional.
My friend’s experience was primarily based on discussion. Doors were open to talk about taboo and abstract concepts regarding pleasure, relationships, and intimacy. Safe and responsible sex was the goal, but this wasn’t confined to abstinence and marital sex.
The kids in his program could decide what that looked like to them by learning how to express and experience their sexuality in a healthy way.
The point is that there isn’t only one healthy way to be a sexual being. Expressions of sexuality vary between cultures, people, and experiences. Sex education is a tool for youth to discover that for themselves and learn to respect and celebrate the spectrum of sexuality and intimacy.
Without these conversations, sex became an act of rebellion and a dirty secret. I didn’t feel comfortable confiding in a parent or a doctor, or any other adult figure for that matter, if I felt like I was in an unhealthy or dangerous relationship or thought I might have an STD or be pregnant.
Fun fact: I had chronic BV throughout high school that went unchecked until college because I was too afraid to tell anyone.
Free and open dialogue is essential to minimizing marginalization and ignorance in the classroom. Students shouldn’t have to follow a defined script to discuss ideas about sex and their developing sexuality. Respectful and thoughtful conversations surrounding these issues should be normalized and encouraged.
#2. Co-Ed Activities
This one blew my mind. My friend told me that the boys and the girls would meet to talk about sex and relationships every week. They were able to ask each other questions about things they were curious about and explore sex and sexuality together.
He said there was a bit of awkwardness initially, but that eventually wore off as a safe and respectful space naturally emerged. Casual and meaningful conversations emerge when the seriousness and forbidden and taboo nature of a topic are relieved. Sex is human.
When I would hear boys and girls discussing sex at my school, it was always very juvenile and secretive. Sex was like a Class A drug, so it was treated with the same recklessness and reverence. A sense of maturity and respect was never cultivated in our understandings of sex, so it could never be discussed with the same or opposite sex in that way.
In my experience, sex education was always separated by gender. We would watch the male puberty video, but we would never discuss it with them, and I remember the feeling of awkwardness and discomfort we had around each other after watching the other’s video.
Combining sexes, even if for just a day, does two things.
- It humanizes sex. It takes the pressure and severity off of the subject, and it also teaches boys and girls how to talk to each other about it maturely and respectfully. This is incredibly important, given that the way boys and girls are taught how to discuss sex will carry over into the way they communicate with each other in their relationships and sexual encounters.
- It gives students the invitation to talk about sex and sexuality in a safe space. These open dialogues ultimately cultivate understanding, curiosity, and maturity.
That doesn’t mean these conversations will never be awkward or silly; that’s a given. And it’s great! Sex is sometimes awkward and silly. In an article published by The Guardian, a Swedish teacher discusses the importance of integrating student lead discussion and analysis in his sexual education curriculum.
Letting students laugh and have fun with sex creates a relaxed and human environment. Setting a new standard, a new possibility, for how sex can be discussed will be reflected in conversations and interactions students have outside of the classroom.
An article on Swedish sexual education emphasizes the importance of not imposing opinions on a student’s sex life. Facts are important, but discussions and reflections regarding attitudes, norms, and values support this concept. Students are taught to respect their peers’ opinions and choices regarding their sexuality and social life.
“In Sweden, the emphasis in the country’s compulsory sex education program has shifted away from the neutral imparting of reproductive knowledge and toward increased stress on the emotional, ethical side of love-relationships.”
He lists different topics discussed at various grade levels in the sex education curriculum. The list is diverse and vast, including homosexuality, religion and non-religious views on sexuality, different opinions about premarital sex, falling in love, masturbation, and choices on family life and structures, including living alone and adoption.
Sex education curriculum should reflect and support the diversity that is the human sexual experience.
My sex education experience may be on the more extreme side, but there are likely elements of this limited curriculum reflected in other programs across the country.
The standardization and framing of norms and attitudes regarding sex and sexuality determine for students what is acceptable and unacceptable in the sexual realm, ultimately labeling and defining individual experiences and roles rather than allowing for exploration, respect, and open-mindedness.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to save oneself for marriage, but no one should feel ashamed for wanting otherwise.
How students choose to define their sexuality and sex life should be their own choice and their own narrative.