In order to get to know the Swedish system of sexuality education, it is important to know two things. First, sexuality education is compulsory in schools and has been since 1955. Second, there is hardly any opposition to sexuality education in Sweden. It is included as a part of the general health objectives for public health work and often referred to as an important part of STI* prevention and promotion of sexual health.
Sexuality education should support and prepare young people for leading a responsible sexual life. It should enable each and every individual to work towards learning how he/she wants to live and towards discovering what is right or wrong for him/her. Guiding stars are knowledge instead of ignorance, openness and facts instead of mysteries and acceptance of young people’s sexuality, relationships and love – with or without a partner.
It is important that the school does not state or impose an opinion regarding the pupil’s choices of sexual life, as long as he/she respects others. An important basis is that knowledge can never harm. On the contrary, it gives individuals greater opportunity to control their lives and make better decisions.
More than facts
Sexuality education in Sweden conveys facts about sexual and reproductive health such as anatomy, sexual functions, sexual orientations, STIs, HIV/AIDS, abortion and contraceptives.
Facts are important but not enough. The possibility to discuss, reflect and work on attitudes, norms and values regarding for example the use of condoms, gender, harassments and expressing love is also important. Here, different methods such as value clarification games and group talks are used. Pupils often say that this is the best part; getting to know their class mates’ and teachers’ reflections on sex, love and relationships.
At many schools condoms are distributed within the context of sexuality education. Many schools also provide condoms at all times at the school nurse’s reception or a teacher.
The objectives of sexuality education are several; for example preventing STIs, unwanted pregnancies, loosening up gender stereotypes (which is an objective for the school in general) and also working against discrimination of LGBT-people**. The pupils should also learn to respect other people’s opinions and choices regarding sexuality and form of social life.
Gender perspective is an important part of the Swedish policy in relation to sexuality education. Currently in Sweden, there are ongoing discussions about the possibility to link sexuality education and gender equality education closer to each other.
Another objective is sexual enjoyment, regarded as something of value in itself.
Age related education
Sexuality education is an inter-disciplinary subject, and many schools form a team, often consisting of teachers and a school nurse and/or a school counselor. Sometimes the pupils are part of the team, or at least involved in the planning.
The major part of the sexuality education is conducted in the fifth, eighth and ninth school year, although it differs from school to school.
Puberty, body development, love, self image, “the first time”, masturbation, condoms and preventive methods, gender, sexual orientation are some important topics. If there is a youth clinic located nearby many schools include a visit. To make the education age and group appropriate many teachers let the pupils ask questions anonymously.
In the fifth year, when the pupils are 11 years old, topics like puberty, body development and masturbation are covered. In the eighth year, at the age of 14, many schools focus on topics like bodily functions and STIs. In the ninth year focus is often on relationships. Many topics recur, as the pupils thoughts and questions change as they grow up and gain experience. E.g. ask the question “what is love?” to a eleven and a fifteen year old pupil and you will get different answers.
Strong traditions give strong support
Sexuality education has a long tradition in Sweden and parents in general support it strongly. If complaints are made parents are often concerned that the education is poor or not good enough, rather than by the fact that sexuality education is conducted.
A few Swedish parents, primarily people of faith, might be hesitant.
Most people are aware of the fact that parents seldom are the best sexuality educators when it comes to their own children.
Demands for compulsory teaching of teachers
When studying to become a teacher, learning how to conduct sexuality education is not compulsory. Teachers are mostly educated through shorter training courses. Making it compulsory has been discussed for a long time, and lately the demand has increased. The first bill to the Parliament on the need of sexuality education at the institutes of education came 1908.
No single answer
It is important to emphasize that sexuality education alone is not the single answer to good prevention and sexual health. But the combination of comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraceptives, youth friendly services and openness in society regarding sexuality can be a fruitful concept.
* STI = Sexual transmittable infections
** LGBT = Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Every school in Sweden has to have an so called Equality Treatment Plan, including gender and LGBT.