Talking about sex is awkward, but it doesn’t need to be. And to make matters more complicated, people of all ages across the globe receive conflicting, muddled information about sex and their bodies every day, which makes it difficult for both young people and adults to safely navigate their reproductive health and embrace their sexuality and bodily autonomy.
A number of regions push back against the notion of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) as a result of cultural and religious concerns. You may have concerns of your own, but the idea is still worth clarifying: what is CSE then? What isn’t CSE? And why do people need CSE?
According to the 2018 UNESCO report on sexuality education, CSE is a “curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality.” While many people may associate CSE with abstinence-based, fear-mongering teaching styles made to warn youth about the threat of STIs, this is not the reality. CSE does and should focus on the process of reproduction, safe sexual behaviors, and how to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases, but the revised guidelines advocate for a more “positive” and holistic outlook towards sex and sexuality. Ideally, this involves discussions on how to create respectful and mutually loving relationships with others based on equality. Ideally, CSE moves beyond rough diagrams and condoms and involves the topics of gender, class, race, and sexual orientation in discussions as well.
Globally, people are in dire need of this kind of comprehensive education. According to the UN, two-thirds of girls in some countries have no idea what is happening to them when their period arrives. And the WHO found HIV/AIDS to be the ninth leading cause of death among adolescents and adults in 2017. Critical gaps in knowledge about how to obtain access to contraceptives among women persist in places such as Africa and Asia as well. As a result, many young girls and women must bear the costs of unwanted and early pregnancies, resulting in some 3 million girls undergoing unsafe abortions each year.
The issue also reigns true in the U.S.: according to the Guttmacher Institute, only 22 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia mandate sex education.
So if not everyone takes it seriously, why is CSE necessary? Here are some of the findings from the UNESCO report :
- Almost all of the CSE programs studied increase knowledge about different aspects of sexuality and the risk of pregnancy or HIV and other STIs.
- Abstinence-based programs are shown to be less effective than programs that focus on delaying sexual activity and condom or contraceptive use.
- CSE programs generally result in increased knowledge of one’s rights within a sexual relationship, increased communication with parents about sex and relationships, and greater autonomy in dealing with risky situations
- Gender-focused CSE is more effective in encouraging students to hold gender equitable attitudes.
Promoting effective CSE is key to achieving gender equality (SDG 5), ensuring healthy lives (SDG 3) and reaching all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By keeping girls aware of their bodies and the consequences of certain sexual behaviors, we can help them stay in school and pursue opportunities. The quest to promote global health is drastically improved if young people are better educated about how to prevent the transmission of STIs. And the fight for gender equality improves as youth of both sexes are equipped with the knowledge and beliefs that encourages respect for each other regardless of their sex and sexuality.
Despite global recognition, there is no way for CSE to reach everyone without the cooperation of local educators and family members. The UNESCO report explicitly states that without the cooperation of parents and family members, youth behaviors are likely to remain unchanged. So, that’s where you come in.
Take Action Challenge:
Family planning, reproductive rights, and sexual health is under siege around the world. Our partners the UNFPA, the Universal Access Project, and Partners in health all have ways for you to join in the cause to protect the sexual health and bodily autonomy of men and women everywhere.
For more information about the work of our partners and how to help, take a look at their websites here:
There are also plenty of opportunities to begin discussing sex and relationships with your loved ones day-to-day. Here’s how you can start the conversation:
If you’re curious as to what UNESCO recommends, feel free to take a peep at the report here. For a more in-depth guide on how to start, Planned Parenthood provides excellent insight into the kinds of opportunities to latch onto.