“Think about what you learned in sex education at school, and what you wish you had learned. My guess is that there is not much overlap between your answers.” E&M-Author Antonia Frank takes a look at why sex education is so lacking in Austria and explores what a way to a more open and educated future could look like.
The Reality of Sex Education in Austria
In my home country Austria, sex education in schools is mostly provided by external associations. For example, the “Sex in the City” programme in Vienna offers free workshops in schools and youth centres about topics like safer sex and contraception, gender roles and role models, as well as sexuality, media and pleasure. Founded in 2020, the project has been extended several times due to high demand, but limited capacity.
In addition, associations like these are often severely underfunded and left without support by the education ministry. Therefore, not every class can participate in a workshop during their school years, which is what happened to my class as well.
Moreover, since the associations are not supported by the state, it also means that they are not vetted by the state or any other authority. There is a wide variety of curricula that are offered by these associations teach, but not all of them are open-minded and helpful. The conservative association ‘TeenSTAR’ came under fire in 2018 for being in favour of conversion therapy, claiming that masturbation can cause low self-esteem as punishment, and implying that sex before marriage is a sin. Only after months of media coverage ‘TeenSTAR’ was banned from schools and the Austrian parliament passed a resolution that sex education associations must pass an accreditation process to prevent incidents like this in the future. The process was supposed to be implemented by the fall of 2021, but it was repeatedly pushed back and so far, nothing has happened. However, a costly and time-consuming accreditation process would also mean the end of many smaller volunteer-based associations regardless of the quality of their teaching, so hopefully the long wait will have a better system at the end of it.
On the other side is the existing responsibility placed on all teachers. In 2015, a new fundamental decree for sex education in Austrian schools was released. This decree emphasizes a positive interdisciplinary approach that promotes personal sexual development, sexual health resources, respect for all sexual orientations, and so on. The interdisciplinary focus divides the responsibility for sex education even further between biology teachers, who usually teach basics of sexual reproduction, and teachers of all other subjects, who would need to integrate an aspect of sex education into their curriculum.
In theory, this sounds very progressive and inclusive. In practice, there is almost no progress visible, since teachers systematically lack the resources and opportunities for advanced training on the subject.
As a result, nobody feels responsible anymore and sex education by teachers is slowly disappearing rather than being revived.
What Schools should Teach
As you can see, a pattern of good intentions and lack of execution runs through Austrian sexual pedagogy. We need a change from this passivity to a clear, active approach that supports vetted educators – associations and teachers – with resources and funding. The term ‘sexual health’ encompasses the minimum of what most of us want to learn from sex education. On the one hand it includes basics like STD prevention and safer sex (for all kinds of sexual orientations and types of bodies), accompanied by information about easy access to contraception. On the other hand, sexual health also covers more serious topics like consent and sexual violence. From this, educators can move on to questions from the social sphere like crushes and first relationships, sexual orientation and gender identity, pleasure, and so on.
How a person approaches sex and sexuality is as much a personal question as a political one. That is why it is crucial to create safe spaces where all approaches are accepted and not judged.
Sex education does not need to be normative; it does not need to dictate what everyone should do. Instead, it should just show what is possible, what is safe and take away the shame surrounding the taboo topic.
For instance, countries like the Netherlands that have already integrated this approach into their curriculum have lower teen pregnancy rates and citizens report higher general satisfaction with their first sexual experiences, which usually occur later in life.
Let’s talk about Sex!
Removing the shame associated with talking about sex, sexuality and bodies is not just the responsibility of schools and the state though. We can all take action and contribute to a better understanding of these topics.
A subject like sexuality is often discussed in such a vague way that leaves a lot of room for interpretation as well as misunderstandings. It is uncomfortable to break norms and explicitly talk about taboo subjects, especially concerning our bodies, but it is also crucial for positive change.
For example, I remember conversations with friends about how to put in a tampon, what vaginismus is, and how many vaginal orifices there are, where only a very explicit conversation made clear that there was a genuine problem or misunderstanding. We can only exist within our bodies so we think everybody must experience and know similar things, but that is not true.
We need to share our knowledge and learn from each other to create a world where everybody feels supported, seen and comfortable in their bodies and are able to express their sexuality freely.
Cover Photo by Charles Deluvio (Unsplash), Unsplash License