A Closer Look at Utopia: Strengths and Weaknesses of Sex Ed in Sweden

Jenny Sjöö Saers

Imagine this: Sweden's school-based sexuality education is so strong that a yearly national youth poll shows that the majority of young people report that they get the best information on contraception and STIs from school.

Imagine a teacher who lets her 8th grade students
say all the dirty, sex-related words they know, and writes them down on the
chalkboard. That’s how Malin Hammarström, science teacher for seventh- through
ninth-graders at a school in Bålsta, Sweden, starts her first sex ed lesson.
The point is to de-dramatize the subject and show her students that she won’t
be shocked and embarrassed, no matter how hard they try – and they will try,
she tells me. That first lesson is followed by at least 12 more, which devote
significant time to discussing the students’ own questions about sexuality and
relationships. She finds sexuality education the most rewarding subject to
teach, because it relates so directly to her students’ own lives. And she has
never heard from any angry parents.

In the light of studies that show how abstinence-only
programs are ineffective, a growing movement in the United States is pushing for
accurate, comprehensive and reality-based sexuality education. Many U.S.-based
sex ed advocates point to Sweden
and the other Scandinavian countries as models for effective programs.

"It is time that the US looks to its northern European
colleagues for lessons learned in adolescent sexual health promotion," says
Debra Hauser, Vice-President at Advocates for Youth.  "In these countries, young people’s right to
honest sexual health information and confidential services is respected and
adolescent sexual development is recognized as normal and healthy. As a result
the rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion are significantly lower than in
the United States."

Studies show very small
differences in levels of teenage sexual activity across developed countries.
But when it comes to teen pregnancy, the US rates are much higher than those
of comparable countries. A study from the Guttmacher Institute show that in the
year 2000, the US had a
teenage birthrate of 49 per 1,000 women aged 15-19, which was five times higher
than the rate in Sweden.
Teenagers in the US
are also less likely to use contraception, and they have higher rates of STD
infection.  A 2001 Guttmacher Institute
study show that the chlamydia rate among US
teens aged 15-19 was 1,132 cases per 100,000, which is nearly twice that of Sweden.

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Of course these differences
cannot be attributed to different approaches to sex ed alone, but are also
likely to depend on socioeconomic, political and cultural factors. In Sweden,
teen sexuality is largely seen as normal and positive, but there is also an
expectation that intercourse will take place within committed relationships
(not only marriage) and that those involved will protect themselves and their
partner. In the US,
teen sexuality is often seen as problematic in itself, and abstinence-only
programs underscore that view.

In Sweden, the debate over sex ed is far beyond whether or
not the curriculum should emphasize abstinence-only. Sex ed is an
uncontroversial subject, and isn’t discussed much outside circles of educators
and experts. The topic of debate is how to better educate teachers on the
subject, and how to move away from curricula that perpetuates the gender norms
and heteronormativity that still permeate our understanding of sexuality.

The history of sex ed in Sweden goes back more than a
century. It became a mandatory school subject in 1955, but the first classes
were held in the early 1900s at a girls’ school in Stockholm. The Swedish Association for
Sexuality Education, RFSU, was one of the main proponents of mandatory sex ed.
RFSU was founded in 1933 by pioneer sex educator Elise (Ottar) Ottesen-Jensen,
and a group of doctors.

Early sex ed was met with critique, not for addressing the
subject, but for being out of touch with young people’s lives. A national 1945
poll found that only 18% of Sweden’s population thought that abstinence until
marriage was important, so the moralizing tone of sex ed that portrayed girls
as responsible for keeping their virginity and boys as only wanting sex, did
not correspond with most people’s perceptions about sexuality. From the 1970s,
a more reality-based approach prevailed, related
to broader political shifts in society. It was acknowledged that young
people have a sexual life, often with a partner, and the focus was on helping
them to be responsible.

Today, the curriculum emphasizes that sex ed belongs in
various subjects, not only biology, but also history, social studies and
psychology. It is often tied to other ethical discussions, such as drugs and alcohol,
peer pressure, beauty standards and gender norms. In comparison with previous
detailed guidelines that told teachers exactly what to say and not, the
curriculum today is very open and general. There are no rules on how to carry
out the course, or how many hours it should take, so this is up to the
individual school to decide. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for
teachers, and it means that the quality of education varies a lot from school
to school. A study commissioned by the National
Agency for Education in 1999 found that students who had received a rather
conventional sexuality education thought that it had been enough or even
unnecessary, as they "already knew everything from magazines." Students who had
taken part in more interactive and varied forms of sex ed were satisfied or
wanted more. Interviews with students suggest that the most valued part of sex
ed is not the facts, but the chance to discuss those facts and relate them to
their own lives. Despite differences in quality and in the students’ own
perceptions of sex ed, a yearly national youth poll show that the majority of
young people aged 16-25 feel that they got the main and best information on
sexuality, contraception and STDs from school.

"Our sex ed was good because you found out things you didn’t knew
before," says Viktor Svensson, 19 years old and due to graduate from the
Swedish equivalent of high school this summer. Though he hasn’t received any
sex ed in high school, he still remembers the classes from earlier grades. The
curriculum at his school was part discussion about ethics and morals, gender
roles and views and sexuality, and part pure facts about things like
reproduction, STDs and contraception.

"Both parts were equally important," he says. "The discussion part was
held by a substitute teacher who normally taught P.E. and you could tell that
she was a bit insecure and embarrassed. Then our biology teacher, a man in his
50s, came back for the facts part of the course. He wasn’t embarrassed at all,
and he made the students feel comfortable."

The quality of sex ed is also affected by the fact that it
is not a mandatory part of teachers’ education today. A study carried out by
RFSU in 2004 showed that only 6% of recently graduated teachers had received
any sex ed teachers’ training. Hans Olsson, responsible for school issues at
RFSU, says that when teachers don’t have knowledge about how to handle the
subject, they risk focusing too much on biology, and giving short shrift to
broader issues related to sexuality. It’s easy to talk about biological facts
because those can be found in a book, but to discuss the role of sex in
society, or emotionally charged issues such as abortion or pornography, in a
meaningful way requires a deeper level of knowledge.

The relative openness about and acceptance of young people’s
sexuality is one of the big advantages of Swedish sex ed, according to Hans
Olsson, RFSU. That the education is focused around the students’ own questions,
and that all students will receive sex ed, are other pros. Like teacher Malin
Hammarström, he has never heard any negative reactions from parents. It is
sometimes said that certain immigrant groups would have problems with the
subject, but when RFSU have visited courses in Swedish for immigrants, they
have only received positive reactions.

Despite over 50 years of mandatory sex ed in Sweden, there
has been no systematic evaluations of the results. RFSU emphasizes that such
research, together with mandatory training for teachers and clearer guidelines,
are needed to improve the quality of sexuality education, and they call for a
professionalization of the subject. As the example of Sweden shows, comprehensive sex ed is not
without its problems, and for US
sex ed advocates, ending abstinence-only is just the beginning. The real
challenge may lie in developing an alternative.

News Law and Policy

Virginia School Board Wants Supreme Court in Fight Over Transgender Student Bathroom Access

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Gloucester County School Board wants the Supreme Court to decide whether federal law requires schools to let transgender students access facilities such as bathrooms that conform to their gender identity.

A Virginia school board will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step into the fight over bathroom access for transgender students in the first real legal test of the Obama administration’s agency actions on the issue.

The case involves Gavin Grimm, a Gloucester County student who, in 2015, challenged his school’s policy of separating transgender students from their peers in restrooms and mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity.

As previously reported by Rewire:

Grimm’s attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the restroom policy, which effectively expels transgender students from communal restrooms and requires them to use “alternative … private” restroom facilities, is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment and violates Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

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The school board defended its policy, arguing that it was consistent with federal law and that it protected the privacy rights of other students at Grimm’s school.

Grimm’s attorneys had asked a federal court for an injunction blocking the policy. A lower court initially sided with the school board; Grimm’s attorneys appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which reversed the lower court and ruled that Grimm’s lawsuit against his school could proceed.

On Tuesday the Fourth Circuit agreed to put its decision on hold while the school board filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to step in. The board is arguing that the Obama administration has gone too far on transgender rights, beginning in 2012, when it issued an initial agency opinion that refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

In October 2015 the administration took that opinion one step further and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy specifically violated federal law. Then, in May this year, the administration expanded that opinion into a directive. Though it still didn’t have the force of law, the directive put all schools receiving federal funding on notice: Should they deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law and subject to lawsuits. The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on this guidance in siding with Grimm earlier this year.

It is not clear whether the Roberts Court will step into the issue of transgender students’ rights at this time. So far, no other federal appeals court has weighed in on the issue.

Meanwhile, 22 states have filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s 2016 directive, arguing that the administration overstepped its authority. That lawsuit is also in its early stages.

Both Grimm’s lawsuit and the states’ lawsuit in response suggest the issue of transgender rights and sex discrimination will end up before the Roberts Court at some point.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

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The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.