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Frank conversation: do we talk enough about sex with Ukrainian teenagers?

4 August 2020
Відверта розмова: чи достатньо говорять з українськими підлітками про секс?
Frank conversation: do we talk enough about sex with Ukrainian teenagers?

Self-hatred because of body shape. Trust issues because of traumatic sexual experience in the past. Inability to express desires. Fear of the gynecologist. Long-term treatment of diseases.

The above situations are familiar to many people - if not affected personally, then hearing the stories of friends and relatives. Most of these problems could have been avoided if proper attention had been paid to sex education.

"How could I had not known this before", "we should have been taught that in school," - that is how we think as we learn more about our bodies and our sexuality. Sometimes it is even too late.

By the way, on average, Ukrainian teenagers at the age of 15 are already having sex. The Internet has opened access to information about everything, including sexuality, but, at the same time, it offers young people a lot of unverified information.

To prepare adolescents for this aspect of life and protect them from dangerous misinformation, there is sexual education. It should not scare youngsters off but answer their "what" and "why" questions.

The situation with such education is not the best in Ukraine: usually, people think of contraception when asked about sex-ed; at worst, they worry about child abuse. However, you should not be concerned: there are social campaigns around the world to help teachers and parents with sex education for young people - it is not just about sex, but also about healthy relationships, tolerance, violence prevention, and self-acceptance.

All over the world, teenagers learn about sex differently: from school lessons to Netflix series. And what is it like in Ukraine?

Sex education: what is the big deal?

According to sociological research, the average age of first sexual intercourse for both girls and boys is 15.1 years for girls and 14.4 for boys. Logically, by this time, adolescents should have knowledge not only about physiology but also about the psychological side of harmonious intimate relationships. Contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, violence - all these topics should be discussed with children from an early age.

The experience of Western countries, where sex education is introduced from an early age, shows its importance. For example, in Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, the proportion of children born to adolescent girls is less than 2%, while in Ukraine it is 5.2%.

Gaps in the sexual education of Ukrainian youth are also manifested in the knowledge about diseases that can be contracted through sexual contact. Only 26% of young Ukrainians correctly identify the ways of HIV transmission, which leads to the spread of infection and stigmatization of certain categories of people.

Both parents and teachers need to focus not only on the physical dimension but also bear in mind the psychological side.

"People usually ignore the fact that intimate relationship is not only about sexual intercourse but also about communication. And we do not know how to adequately talk to our loved ones on sensitive topics. In my opinion, sex education should begin with the section of relationships - and how to build healthy, non-toxic communication in them," blogger Asia Say says.

Sex education should become an extremely important element of learning in general, because knowledge can protect against violence, unwanted pregnancies, and diseases. However, the situation in Ukraine remains far from brilliant.

Mistakes and gaps

Currently, sexual education in Ukrainian schools is divided between several subjects. One can find its elements almost everywhere: from lessons of quite expected biology to Ukrainian literature. Nowadays, there is no single course of sex education but the majority of its topic falls under the discipline "Fundamentals of Health". Experts are pessimistic about the current school curriculum in terms of sex education. For example, Yana Panfilova, founder of the youth organization Teenergizer, believes that the situation with sex education in Ukraine has not improved in recent years, and the reasons for this, among other things, is the notorious textbook on "Family Basics", which aggressively promotes so-called "traditional" values ​​and the Christian view of the family.

However, "Family Basics" is a selective discipline and has already led to public outcry. But the "Fundamentals of Health" are studied by all students for many years. And these textbooks also have many shortcomings: for example, the old version of the textbook on "Fundamentals of Health" for 8th grade still retains the theme of victim behavior of domestic violence survivors.

"We need to rewrite all the programs, rewrite all the books that are now available on the "Fundamentals of Health", conduct teacher training, and introduce online courses," Yana Panfilova shared her vision of solving the problem of sex education in schools. However, she added, not every teacher will be ready to talk about sex, about sex education, about abuse, about violence.

Experts agree that the school needs to rethink sex education. Ukrainian sex education needs new programs and textbooks to cover the full range of topics, from contraception to responsible parenting and psychological abuse. And it is necessary to talk to children from the first grade, if not earlier, without omitting any topics and answering questions honestly.

Not from parents and teachers: who else is involved in educating young people?

Although children spend a lot of time at school and at home, the main source of information for them is not teachers or parents. In the sociological study mentioned above, teenagers were asked where they get information about sex: the majority opted for the Internet and friends.

These results are not unexpected, since talking to peers on such topics or asking questions anonymously on the Internet is much more convenient than talking to adults. But online communities should not replace sex education at school.

"Sex education in schools is extremely necessary! But it should never be based on biology lessons, as we usually see it. This requires experts with specific qualifications who can both talk about the physiological aspects of sexual relations and provide psychological help. The Internet and opinion leaders can be an additional source of knowledge in this regard, but not the main one," Asia Say who focuses on youth sexual education, particularly on the popular social network Instagram, says. 

It is natural for teenagers to search for information on the Internet because of the awkwardness of talking to parents and teachers. Therefore, one of the tasks of adults should be to properly "arm" young people. This can be done by sharing with adolescents trust-worthy resources and articles. Teenergizer platform is one of these resources. Here young people can consult on any issue in the form of online consultation.

The United Nations Population Fund works to protect and promote reproductive and sexual rights in more than 150 countries. In Ukraine, the availability of family planning and childbirth care is fortunately not as acute as in many other countries, but the formation of a healthy space for sexual development still requires special attention.

"Reproductive and sexual health are key issues for us. Therefore, in the majority of our programs - and on gender equality, and combating domestic violence, and, of course, youth - these issues are always included. For example, we have a project "No trivia in relation", which aims to work with young people and help them to build healthy relationships without any violence and be able to communicate properly in pairs from the beginning. Of course, sexuality issues are also included," Alyona Zubchenko, a program analyst of the Fund said.

The Fund attracts experts and opinion leaders. For example, Honorary Ambassador for UNFPA Masha Efrosinina attended a global forum in Nairobi hosted by UNFPA last year. There she had the opportunity to personally hear the experience of many countries that have either introduced or are on the way to introducing sex-ed for young people. These meetings resulted in an understanding of the topic's depth and the necessity to talk now with young people and parents who often do not have a complete picture of their reproductive and sexual health. 

"Adolescents approach the topic of sex, already overwhelmed with information. For example, teenagers may take porn as a definition of what real sex should be like: when a partner is uncomfortable, sometimes they are in pain or offended. Someone listens to the stories of friends who also like to "embellish" their experience. To remove all these blockages in your head, you need a dialogue between two people. This dialogue must be normal for any age, 14 or 60. Communicate about what you want, how you want, or whether you will be happy. Sex education is formed in this way. It is a culture to teach thinking about how a partner feels," Masha emphasizes.

A lot of youth media and books are devoted to puberty. If parents do not know where to start talking to children about this topic, one can start with the right literature, quality articles, and interviews with trusted people. However, this should not replace a live conversation and a trusting relationship.

"It is very important to use the right resources, which are run by specialists who have a deep understanding of the subject and have a complete picture. Fortunately, there are enough of them in Ukraine. For example, we have been in partnership with gynecologist-endocrinologist Natalia Silina for 2 years now, and together we answer questions from girls and women. We understand that a person should easily find the answer to any question about their health that worries them - whether it is possible to do sports during menstruation or the question of enjoying sexual intercourse," Alyona Zubchenko says.

The importance of sex education cannot be overstated. Obviously, there is a demand for it, because most teenagers are interested in sex. However, teachers often choose a strategy of silence, skipping topics in the school curriculum, and parents believe that children have already learned everything. It is important to remember that silence will not work; on the contrary, it can lead to disastrous consequences.

Therefore, we need a comprehensive program of actions on how to talk to teenagers about sex. Parents, teachers, celebrities, and authorities should be all involved in the process.