According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in order to overcome the challenges concerning sexual health - such as those against the increasing rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, unwanted teenage pregnancies and sexual violence - it is necessary to give a key role to sex education, both in the family and in schools.
In 2010, the WHO Regional Office for Europe published a document entitled 'Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe', in which it set out some guidelines to promote the introduction of sex education, especially in schools.
First of all, it is worth clarifying what is meant by sex education. Since it is difficult, due to the complexity of the subject, to provide an exhaustive definition, it might be useful to introduce the topic by comparing two types of sex education: the "informal" one - which takes place during the course of growing up, gradually, when children and adolescents acquire knowledge about the human body, intimate relationships and sexuality - and the "formal" one - during which children and adolescents are accompanied in their learning by professionals in the medical, pedagogical, social or psychological fields. The two types of sex education are complementary and both play a fundamental role: "sex education is part of the more general education and influences the development of the child's personality. The preventive nature of sex education not only helps to avoid possible negative consequences related to sexuality, but can also improve quality of life, health and well-being, thus contributing to promoting general health" [Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe, WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2010].
The WHO, with the above-mentioned document, has promoted a holistic approach to sex education, aimed at providing impartial and scientifically correct information on all aspects of sexuality and instrumental in developing the skills necessary to act on the basis of such information, thus fostering respectful and open attitudes that promote the construction of equitable societies. Sexual education cannot be reduced to a mere list of information on the reproductive system - as is most often the case, especially in schools - and, indeed, cannot ignore education on affectivity and socially shared (and shareable) values.
If, as far as informal sex education is concerned, the primary source of learning is the parents - who have a key role to play, particularly in the early stages of development - the main driver of formal sex education is the school.
Intra-school sex education officially started in Sweden, where it became compulsory in all schools in 1955. From then on, it spread like wildfire throughout Europe and only in a few countries - especially in southern Europe - has sex education not yet been introduced in schools. However, sex education is rarely a compulsory subject and, even more rarely, is examined. Despite the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly states the right to information and the obligation of states to implement measures for the education of children and young people, and despite the fact that even the modern media have, in a very short space of time, become important sources of information on sexuality that is for the most part distorted, unbalanced, unrealistic and often degrading, especially for women, the idea of teaching sex education in schools is still feared in many European countries, all the more so when it comes to kindergartens.
Of course, it is important to deal with sexuality in an age-appropriate way, and the WHO itself has drawn up lists of topics, approaches, methods, required skills and transmissible values by age group. Respecting the gradual nature of the education and cognitive process of children and adolescents is absolutely necessary. However, this cannot and must not lead to children and adolescents being left to their own devices in the face of the healthy curiosity about sexuality that seizes them during the various stages of development. Not to start educating children about healthy - and not distorted - sexuality at an early stage would be to start late, as is the case with any other kind of education based on respect for others, the environment or animals.
Sexuality must not be a source of embarrassment for adults and, above all, this embarrassment cannot and must not affect children. This is both because a serene growth of the ego also takes place through the development of one's own sexuality, and because future generations should and will have to be put in a position to live in a context that promotes integration, not discrimination; to make people understand and not censor them in the name of an ill-defined sense of modesty. It is precisely in order to achieve these objectives that sex education should and must be promoted in schools in a more in-depth, conscious and holistic manner. This would ensure a uniform spread of awareness of the issue - since it would not be left to individual families, within which, unfortunately, there is not always the possibility of exchange.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Rebecca Scaglia