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Sexuality education at school: what are the opinions of Italian adolescents?

Italy is one of the few countries in Europe where sexuality education is not included among the compulsory study disciplines neither for primary nor for secondary school students. Since the seventies, the country has seen a sequence of law proposals and numerous debates in this regards. However, until nowadays, little progress has been made and the responsibility to organise any sex education workshop falls on the school headmaster. Some schools offer workshops led by external educators. In others, science and biology teachers spend some time teaching sex education. Unfortunately, there are often no opportunities to address these issues within the school walls, or, even worse, no one wants to find adequate time to talk about the subject.

Beyond our individual opinions on sexuality education as a curricular discipline in the Italian school system, as researchers in children’s rights and childhood studies, we have been interested in the Italian case, given its exceptional nature in Europe. We have read and heard pros and cons opinions of politicians, worried and not so worried parents, and arguments of psychologists and teachers who juggle among terms such as sex, emotions, affectivity, sexuality, STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases), gender.

But it was not the controversy “sex at school, yes or no?” that interested us as young researchers. What stroke us was what we could not hear: the voices of children and adolescents. What do Italian teenagers think about sexuality education in the school context? Would it be useful, or not? Would it be interesting? Or would it be better to talk about it at home, at church, in sport classes, or confine the subject to chat between friends? Or would it be better to avoid any talk about it, since sex can be done but not spoken about? And yet … how should the ideal teacher be? What are the topics that children and adolescent want to talk about?

We, Alessandra, Maria Rosaria and Francesca, strongly believe in the active participation of boys and girls, of adolescents of all gender identities, in the political life, especially with regard to the issues that directly affect their present and future life. As stated by the article 12 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, of which Italy is a signatory state, children have the right to be informed and to express their opinion on everything that concerns them. They have the right to tell us what they think, and we as adults have the duty to listen to them.

With this belief, we decided to undertake our first work together, which, without knowing it, would have been the first in a long series: a qualitative research. We interviewed groups of boys and girls between 14 and 18 in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Apulia. Together we talked about sexuality (not limiting ourselves to the sphere of health and reproduction, but including aspects such as critical thinking, gender roles and stereotypes, relationships and emotions, sexual orientation, the relationship between sex and media, etc.). We asked some questions, and witnessed long chats between them. The voices of the participants were then transcribed and analysed, with a method that experts recognize as that of the Grounded Theory of Corbin and Strauss.

School as a suitable place to talk about sexuality

The results of our research point out that adolescents hold a positive opinion about sexuality education and consider the school the most appropriate place for its teaching. Within the family, as in the communities, there seems to be very little (or no) space for these issues. Many of them suggest that compulsory sexuality education should start in primary school and should continue during high school, telling us that it would be easier to talk about it if starting from an early age.

It was interesting to hear adolescents defining the school as “a place where you learn to live in society”, expressing trust in institutions that we did not expect. Respondents also expressed their views on the characteristics of a useful and effective class in sexuality education and they included frontal teaching and exams, in order to give to the subject the same importance compared to the other existing subjects.

Despite this trust in the school system and in its more classical teaching methods, the boys and girls also expressed clear criticisms towards their external teachers and educators, whom they met during short workshops organised by the school. They complained of being seen mainly as “tabula rasa”, empty containers in which adults would insert notions. Some have shown disappointment towards the lack of professionalism and embarrassment of teachers in dealing with explicitly sensitive topics. Almost all respondents agreed on the ideal sexuality education teacher: young, well-trained, specialised and external to the daily school environment.

There is little space to talk about sexuality, it is not properly discussed and exclusively framed by a preventive approach.

During the analysis of the interviews, complaints recur due to the total lack of space to discuss about sexuality among adolescents, as well as for the preventive and protective focus of the scholastic discourse on sexuality. This focus revolves around pregnancies and diseases and the mechanics of sex, and it leaves out emotions, feelings, pleasure, fun or fears. In the family context, on the other hand, there is strong embarrassment, and young people turn to their parents only when they are faced with a serious problem such as an unwanted pregnancy or episodes of abuse. Friends and classmates seem to be the only ones with whom teenagers exchange information.

The Internet emerges as a very important tool, used to satisfy curiosity and to receive notions about sex and relationships. However, respondents express scepticism towards the reliability of information found online, and complain that they are exposed to pornographic material when they browse the web and search for information about sexuality.

Television also emerged as an essential resource, which can help create discussion points. Unfortunately, TV programmes from which kids tell us they have learned something useful (“Le Iene” or “Uomini e Donne”) are certainly not designed with a pedagogical or informative goal.

Generally speaking, in a strongly eroticized world, nobody seems to talk to Italian adolescents about eroticism. In a world characterised by gender-based violence, few discuss gender differences with them, or help them manage and understand human relationships in a systematic way.

A strongly hetero-normative society

From our analysis of the experiences of the young interviewees, strong gender categorizations emerges based on hetero-normative narratives. What does it mean, beyond academic jargon? That sex is primarily conceived as an act that takes place “between a girl and a boy”, where the girl is generally more emotional and attentive to contraceptions, and the boy is always ready to go to bed with anyone.

The boys and girls interviewed, when talking about sex and love, speak in hetero terms and, when talking about homosexuality, the language used is not always among the most politically correct. Some wonder how one can love people of the same sex “from one day to the next”, and engage in discussions in the wake of “I am in favour of gays” or “I am not against them”, as it typically happens within a society in which homosexual love is barely counted in the sphere of normality.

Furthermore, the roles that everyone assumes according to their gender seem to be strongly defined. Boys watch porn, girls don’t. Boys are interested in having sex as soon as possible, girls are afraid. Girls must be careful not to be labelled as “easy” (sex is admitted only within the framework of a relationship); for boys it doesn’t seem to be a problem, just do it and the more you do it the better. The girls post provocative photos online; boys definitely do it less, but they can blackmail the girls who do it.

These results did not surprise us; Italy is a country characterized by strong problems of discrimination and gender violence. But something that made us reflect are the numerous episodes of bullying and cyber-bullying that emerged during the discussion groups. Very often the victim is a girl, targeted as a result of her sexual behaviour. “Cyber slut-shaming”, or the phenomenon in which women are admonished for behaviours or desires that are more sexual than society finds acceptable, in this case online, seems to be widespread.

However, on a positive note, we also sensed some sort of resistance from some interviewees towards existing gender bias. Some criticize adults who do not respect homosexuals; others wonder if “even boys are afraid to do it the first time”; others criticize men who speak badly about exhibitionist girls but who then like to watch their photos online. One of our interviewees was very clear in stressing that awareness of gender diversity and discrimination problems should be one of the fundamental qualities of a good sexuality education teacher.

Not surprisingly, among the most recent recommendations of the Italian NGO Group to the CRC, addressed to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Education, University and Research, some explicitly concern the launching of programmes and awareness campaigns on equal opportunities and respect for sexual orientation and gender identity. As researchers in the field, we join these critical voices, strongly affirming that Italian adolescents want and need to discuss issues related to sexuality, inclusive of gender dynamics. School seems to be the right place for this type of teaching, and our research aims at offering a starting point for building a curriculum of sexuality education that could respond to the preferences, needs and life experiences of Italian adolescents.

You can read our complete research article “Yes to Sexuality Education at School: Exploring the Voices of Italian Adolescents” in the academic journal Social Work Review.