Battle Over Sex Education in the Czech Republic
A controversial sex-ed manual has provoked a backlash from religious conservatives
As the school year begins, the new education minister, Josef Dobeš, is set to call on Czech school principals to familiarize parents with the way sex education is taught in their schools. A new teacher's manual on sex education has recently sparked a heated debate. Following protests from some principals and from more conservative parents, the ministry has pulled the guide from its website. The debate has opened up several questions, though: Should schools provide Czech children with a basic knowledge of sex or is that the sole right of their parents? And what does it mean when we say "basic knowledge" of sex?
According to surveys, kids receive most information about sex from their friends. Families and schools play a minor role when it comes to sex-related topics. Three years ago, as part of a new educational program, it was decided that schools should familiarize students with the topic of sex. Schools could decide in what form and to what extent they would do so. This past spring, the then education minister, Ondřej Liška, decided that schools needed to have a more detailed guide on how to teach sex-ed. "In this, schools have to catch up," says Liška's former deputy and current ministerial advisor Jindřich Kitzberger. The ministry recommended a range of topics that should be taught to students, including sexual anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, premature sexual experiences and sex crimes. At the same time, the ministry asked a group of experts to prepare a guide. The result is a 70-page manual called Sex Education – Selected Issues, which has proved controversial.
What has agitated parents, as well as some teachers, is the fact that the guide says it should be the school that decides what to teach in sex education classes, and in what form and to what extent, regardless of what parents think. On top of that, it contains a number of other contentious issues. Contraception is, for example, a sign of a mature society, the guide says. It entirely ignores its health risks. Some teachers were shocked by instructions on how to interact with kids when teaching them about sex. One example is a game in which children are supposed to change chairs depending on whether they already have pubic hair or have had a period or masturbate.
"This is not the ministry's material but a set of articles prepared by experts," says Jindřich Kitzberger. He stresses that it's up to teachers if and how they use the offered guide. "It is only one of many sources. It is up to the teacher to analyze the text and teach according to his or her judgment."
The guide would probably have ended up being used as Kitzberger proposed, with some schools using it and others rejecting it as totally useless.
But two ultraconservative groups, the Výbor na obranu rodičovských práv (VORP; Association for Protection of Parental Rights) and the Christian-based Hnutí pro život (Pro-Life Movement), contacted elementary schools and, out of around 4,000 schools, heard back from 200 that said they would not use the guide. On top of that, around 7,000 parents, appalled by the guide, added their names to the activists' online petition.
In August, Archbishop Dominik Duka paid a visit to Minister Dobeš to protest against the manual. Prime Minister Petr Nečas is among the guide's critics. Following a meeting with VORP representatives, Dobeš said: "I value [VORP's] activity and I deem them responsible parents." He then ordered the manual to be pulled from the ministry's website.
"We did not meet the minister to have a dialogue with him but to demand that he met our requirements," says VORP's David Loula. "We demanded that he withdraw the book and make all sex education entirely voluntary for schools." In the Christian-based organization's office in Žďár nad Sázavou he describes what he doesn't like about the new manual. "The guide doesn't describe sex as part of a relationship but like this: 'now we eat, now we play sports and now we have sex'," says Loula. "This is entirely unacceptable for us and our children."
The most contentious topic for the activists is the issue of homosexuality. Paradoxically, it is one of the few topics that the guide deals with in a reasonable manner. The two-page section says that homosexuality is a "natural emotional and sexual preference" that has not been considered a disorder by doctors for some time, and which "civilized countries regard as a common minority orientation." Therefore, it is necessary to fight discrimination against homosexuals, which is rooted in prejudices and stereotypes. But that is precisely what has angered Loula. "Homosexuality is a deviation and I believe it can be cured," he says and suggests that schools should not teach homosexuality at all because that only promotes this "deviation from the norm." His kids should have the right to consider this sexual orientation a deviation and refuse, for example, to take a shower with a boy they think might be homosexual.
We will sue them
Minister Dobeš has also partially met VORP's other requirement. He asked school principals to inform parents about the way they conduct sex education at their schools as soon as the new school year starts. "Teachers are obliged to respect parents' views, in case sex education is in violation of their values and moral codes," says the letter from the minister. "In a case where parents disagree with the selected topics [proposed in the guide], the school must arrange for alternative lessons for their children."
According to Kitzberger, this is hardly feasible, since sex education is part of the whole curriculum. "It is impossible to say that sex education classes take place, for example, on Wednesdays from 9 'til 10," says the former deputy minister.
It's up to individual schools how much information on sex-related topics they give their students. It's also up to them in what subject and to what extent teachers will talk about sex. Schools can also choose to invite an expert to talk on a given topic.
Militant Christians welcome these changes. "We don't want to alter biology textbooks that talk about sexual reproduction and reproductive organs," says Loula. "But we want to know exactly how they teach these issues. If it is in conflict with parents' moral values, we are ready to file a petition in court against the given school."
And Loula's VORP has won a case in the past. In 1995, the Education Ministry planned to start separate sex education classes. However, Czech bishops struck back with a high-profile campaign to scrap sex-ed classes. Consequently, former minister Ivan Pilip shut down the separate sex-ed classes program. And he also made teaching sex education voluntary for schools -- it was up to them whether they opted for sex-ed or not. This practice of voluntary sex-ed classes was scrapped three years ago when the new education program was introduced.
How to teach it
The message that has arisen over the summer vacation is clear. The following months will see an intense debate on how much Czech kids should learn about sex in school, in what form, and if all children or only those whose parents agree to it will take part.
The ministry's new sex-ed guide has made schools think more about the issue. Karel Špecián, principal of the elementary school in Lysá nad Labem, doesn't like the new manual. "Parents are our partners, not enemies," he says. "I must respect their ethical values." His school doesn't intend to play any sex-ed-related games with students. "We have to take into account a child's shyness. What if a child says something he or she didn't mean to during a sex class? What if this influences his or her relations with other kids in the class?"
Following the three-year-old educational program, kids in his school learn about the basic differences between men and women in the third grade. They are taught more details in a general science class in the fifth grade. Different aspects of sex, such as contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual orientation are taught during family education classes in the eighth grade. "We provide general information, we don't analyze their attitude to sexuality," says Špecián. No parents, not even religious parents, have ever protested about this way of conducting sex education, he adds.
Even politicians have already begun to verbalize their attitude toward sex education. "I am not an advocate of sex-ed at schools," Prime Minister Nečas says openly. Civic Democrat (ODS) Senator Jaroslav Kubera thinks that sex education is "socialist nonsense." "It is none of the state's business. It is obvious that sex-ed is the sole right of parents."
But Education Minister Josef Dobeš wants to keep sex-ed at Czech schools. "Providing information corresponding to a child's age is a school's duty and the student's right," he says. "The sex-ed issue is not an exception." His advisor, Kitzberger, agrees: "We welcome consultation and dialogue with parents. But should parents refuse to provide any information about sex, it is the duty of school to do so."
Until recently, Czech parents hadn't tried to influence the battle over sex-ed. They often had no idea what and how schools were teaching their kids. This month, however, schools will begin informing them about their sex-ed teaching methods. We can only expect that some parents will gladly join the debate over sex education in Czech schools.
• This is a translated version of the article Rozruch na hodině sexu, which first appeared in Respekt 35/2010
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