Without the public’s knowledge, Swedish authorities and civil organizations have for a long time worked to introduce a new form of sex education in primary schools. They call it Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). Every time curricula are revised; they are given more and more space. The Sexual Revolution, how teaching will change in 2022, wrote the National Association of Swedish Teachers when the latest curriculum in primary school was introduced. (1, Vi Lärare, 2021)

Comprehensive sexuality education is mainly intended for pre-school children and primary school children. The content is controversial and upsets many.

Radical Content

Comprehensive sexuality education, CSE, is an area of knowledge that is characterized by a large number of different themes. The National Agency for Education describes the themes of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standard for sexuality education in Europe: The human body and its development, fertility and reproduction, sexuality, emotions, relationships and lifestyle, sexuality and health, sexuality and rights, and society and culture. (2 p. 4, Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), 2022a)

With so many widely dispersed themes, the field of knowledge opens up to all sorts of content. Some of the intended content may be reasonable, some questionable, while some parts are perceived as harmful to children. The fact that the field of knowledge is so broad becomes practical for its proponents, who can point to the more innocent parts when criticism emerges.

Many people have the idea that primary school sex education deals with biology, reproduction, anatomy, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But to settle for that conveys too much of a risk perspective, according to the Swedish National Agency for Education. (3, UR, 2022a)

“There is a need for a balance between a health and risk perspective, so that sex and relationship education does not only become problematic and frightening. It is better to start from promoting health than to prevent problems and diseases”, writes the Swedish National Agency for Education. (4 p. 15, Skolverket, 2019a)

The new sex education should preferably convey a positive image of sexuality. Children should learn to appreciate pleasure, masturbation and orgasms. The Swedish National Agency for Education believes that it is a healthy perspective to encourage children to become curious about and explore their sexuality and identity. (2, Skolverket, 2022a)

Children need to learn how to deal with pornography. The Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company’s series “Everything about Porn” targeting 12-year-olds, where youth, experts and adult actors share their views on porn, helps us understand how the Swedish National Agency for Education thinks it should be done. The eight-part series enlightens children about both the pros and cons of watching and participating in pornographic films. (5, UR, 2022b)

Comprehensive sexuality education is based on the notion that children are sexual beings and that they must therefore be prepared from birth to reach their full sexual potential. Old-fashioned morality must not be allowed to get in the way. Therefore, the state should have an overarching obligation to promote, protect and monitor children’s sexual rights regardless of what their parents think. (6 p. 17, SoS, 2014)

Teaching should transform. A stated goal of comprehensive sexuality education is to create social change through children. Schoolchildren should learn to question the norms and values that exist in society and among older generations. (7 p. 17, UNESCO, 2018)

Sexuality education is intended to influence the development of a child’s personality, social and sexual behaviours. Children should have a liberated view of gender, sexuality and identity. (8, RFSU, 2022)

“the early grades may, in fact, be the best time to introduce topics related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, gender equality, and social justice related to the LGBTQ community before hetero- and cis-normative values and assumptions become more deeply ingrained and less mutable.” (9 p. 23, JAH, 2021)

To effectively influence children’s thought patterns, you need to start when they are young. Preferably as early as possible and long before the children have reached puberty and any sex drive has started. In line with international guidelines, the National Agency for Education recommends that comprehensive sex education begin before the age of four and that it should be allowed to permeate all teaching. (10 p. 12, Skolverket, 2021)

Harmful Ideology

The Swedish National Agency for Education wants to teach children to consent and negotiate in sexual contexts. This is worrying, as children are easily victims of manipulation. Consent training can make children feel a greater responsibility to follow through on something they have been persuaded to do by an adult. (8, RFSU, 2022)

According to Swedish law, children can never consent to sexual acts. In this light, the school’s consent training seems strange. The legislation is clear and provides special protection against sexual abuse for all children under the age of 15. The offender should not be able to rely on the child’s consent in his defence. (11, Government Bill 2004/05:45)

The content of comprehensive sexuality education is close to what is often described as grooming, a manipulative behaviour that can be used to sexually exploit children. Children are subjected to grooming when adults normalize intimate and sexual thought patterns. One way to normalize could be repeated touching and massage of children. Another is to show pornographic material and discuss sexual topics. It pushes children’s personal boundaries. (12, RAINN, 2020)

One of countless examples of materials that normalize sexual thinking is the Swedish National Agency for Educations program, in sign language, for middle school children who are “curious about porn”. The children learn that oral sex, masturbation and anal sex do not make you pregnant. (13, UR, 2023)

Sexualisation of children can have serious negative psychological, physical and social consequences. Early and inappropriate sexualization of children affects their thoughts, feelings, and actions that they may come to regret as they get older. They risk psychological trauma that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Finding your identity as a young person can take time. The road there can be long and winding. It is irresponsible to promote thoughts at a sensitive age that could ultimately lead to irreversible medical and surgical interventions.

When the school promotes values in conflict with the culture of the children’s family, the children end up in a conflict situation. During the day, the norms of the school and classmates apply. In the evening and at the weekend, family norms prevail. When schools interfere in the upbringing of children in this way, it weakens family cohesion.

Proponents claim that there is evidence that comprehensive sexuality education has positive effects, but when independent researchers examine the authorities’ own data, they instead see that the programs almost always fail and it becomes uncertain whether any child has benefited from them. Only six of the 103 international CSE programmes studied were able to demonstrate any effectiveness without causing other negative effects. (14, IRE, 2019)

International Guidelines

“Sexuality education programs should prepare students to understand their sexuality effectively and creatively in adult roles. This would include helping young people develop the capacity for caring, supportive, non-coercive, and mutually pleasurable intimate and sexual relationships.”  (15 p. 10, SIECUS, 1991)

These are the words of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), whose slogan is Sex Ed for Social Change, in its guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education, which were the first of their kind in 1991. SIECUS was established with a grant from Playboy shortly after the UNESCO conference in Hamburg in 1964. SIECUS’ work, which was funded by Ford and Rockefeller, was based on the Swedish National Board of Education’s guide to sex education (1956), which was presented at the conference and attracted international attention. (16, Board of Governors of Schools, 1944)

The conclusions reached by the conference participants in 1964 were the same familiar phrases that proponents of sexuality education still use today: “Children learn about sex elsewhere … rarely in the home”; sex education is needed because “sex is commercially exploited in the mass media”; “sex education should begin at an early age” and be “integrated into the entire curriculum”; “controversial teaching methods” must be used; and “moral norms are relative concepts that change over time.” (17, UNESCO, 1964)

The revolutionary guidelines needed to be spread internationally, and intergovernmental bodies helped to build on it. In 2009, both UNESCO and the Population Council, founded by Rockefeller, published their own guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education. They were both slightly more detailed versions of the original. (18, UNESCO, 2009) The Population Council was early to recommend education about transsexuality. (19, Population Council, 2009)

The following year (2010), the World Health Organization (WHO) published its European Standard for Comprehensive Sexuality Education. It had similar content as before, now focusing on the situation in Europe. (20, WHO, 2010)

The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), an official UNESCO cooperation organization (21, UNESCO Council, 2017), participated as an expert in the development of both UNESCO’s guidelines (2009) and the World Health Organization’s standard (2010). RFSU helped to ensure that a recommendation to teach children how to handle pornography was included in both documents.

When UNESCO (2018) updated its technical guidelines, it specifically thanked Sweden and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) for their invaluable financial support. (7 p. 4, UNESCO, 2018) Once again, RFSU had had an influence on the contents. (22, RFSU, 2018) The update was needed to reflect the changing nature of international sexual policy, which has now been given a central place in Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. (7, UNESCO, 2018)

Common to the guidelines is an elaborate way of implanting sexual attitudes, skills and experiences into schoolchildren. Those who primarily want to protect children wonder whether these documents are actually internationally accepted frameworks for sexual grooming and that they normalize sexual content and behaviour. (23, Safe Schools Alliance UK, 2023)

Swedish Sex Education

In the early 1900s, Sweden had a poor and stagnant population with a low fertility rate. Self-imposed extreme birth control was seen as the cause. Abortion, the distribution of contraceptives and sex education were banned in order to force the birth rates higher.

The coercive measures were ineffective and created popular discontent from which the National Association for Sex Education (RFSU) was founded in 1933. In 1936, the state appointed the Population Commission, which proposed that instead of coercive measures, introduce sex education in schools in order to increase the number of children in Sweden. (24, Myrdal, 1935)

“The education of the people to a positive attitude to the family is, both individually and politically, a primary prerequisite for the solution of the population question.” (25 p. 146, Population Commission, 1936)

The Commission reasoned that the technique of birth control was neither necessary nor desirable, but to conceal it would be superficial and distorted. The state’s new strategy was in line with RFSU’s and a close collaboration could be initiated.

Globally, Sweden’s problem was a non-issue. In line with the changing nature of national and international politics, the National Board of Education and later the National Agency for Education, every few years, developed new guides, curricula and support materials for sex education. The intention and content changed from the original and Sweden’s pioneering work gradually turned into comprehensive sexuality education.

However, few dedicated teachers implemented sex education as intended. There was considerable national variation. For most students, sex education was no more than a lesson in grade eight.

“Sweden was the first country in the world to make sexuality education compulsory in 1955. Since then, the curriculum has evolved, with significant changes made in 2011 when sexuality education was strengthened within the curriculum and integrated into more subjects.” (26 p. 32, UNESCO, 2021)

“Sex and relationship education can be said to consist of three parts and can be described with the help of a triangle. All parts are important in the planning, follow-up and development of teaching, as they contribute to a holistic view of the field of knowledge.” (4 p. 3, Skolverket, 2019a)

The first part is cross-curricular, as sex education was integrated into many of the other school subjects. The second part of sex education is the everyday work of capturing the issue on the fly, where the teacher brings up what happened during recess. The third part is special lessons and theme days with teachers or staff from RFSL and RFSU. (27, Skolverket, 2012) (28, RFSU, 2013)

Despite controversial teaching methods, in practice there was not as much comprehensive sexuality education as hoped. The Government therefore commissioned the National Agency for Education to develop new courses and curricula in which it would be clarified how sex education should be carried out. (29, Skolverket, 2019b) They were introduced in 2022. Under the heading The school’s values and mission in the curriculum, it is clarified that “Pupils should also be given the opportunity to develop a critical approach to how relationships and sexuality are portrayed in different media and contexts, including pornography.” (30 p. 8, Skolverket, 2022b)

The change in primary school sex education seems to go hand in hand with the development of international standards and guidelines. The Swedish National Agency for Education has for a long time repeatedly referred to both the World Health Organization’s standard (2010) and UNESCO’s guidelines (2018) in its support and training materials. (2, Skolverket, 2022a)

Sweden’s well-documented commitment to comprehensive sexuality education, on the other hand, is not something the National Agency for Education wants to showcase. In communication with the public, the National Agency for Education gives the impression that the extensive changes in the primary school’s sex education have taken place without any guidance from international guidelines.

Internally, it sounds different. Swedish authorities and civil society organisations like to boast about how the Swedish curricula for elementary and middle school have a clear comprehensive sexuality education perspective. (31, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2013)

European Directives

The European Parliament acknowledges that the implementation of sex education is the responsibility of Member States, but urges them to ensure that all children in primary and secondary education receive comprehensive sexuality education; (32 § 26, EU, 2021)

“Member States are expected to adhere to the WHO standards for sexuality education and UNESCO International Technical Guidelines on Sexuality Education.” (33 p. 5, EU, 2020)

The EU wants children to receive comprehensive sexuality education as early as possible. (34, EU, 2022) Sweden is at the forefront, starting with 5/6-year-old children. Only the Netherlands is ahead with their 3/4-year-olds. (33 p. 6, EU, 2020)

“In a few other Member States, sexuality education is more explicitly and deliberately taught as a cross-curricular strand of learning, where teachers of all subjects are expected and able to cover various aspects of sexuality education as they become relevant (Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands and Sweden).” (33 p. 8, EU, 2020)

A review of the WHO European Region identified shortcomings in teacher education. At the moment (2020), sexuality education is only included as part of basic teacher education in Finland, Estonia and Sweden. (33 p. 8, EU, 2020)

Comprehensive sexuality education was not equally well received in all countries. The European Parliament sees the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation in social and other media as the cause and calls on Member States to reject and combat such information. (32 § 29, EU, 2021)

Advocates are concerned about the population’s increasingly negative attitude towards allowing children to be exposed to this new form of sex education. (35, IPPF, 2018) (36, Angel, 2022) One such problematic example is Latvia. (33 p. 9, EU, 2020) Due to Latvians’ aversion to comprehensive sexuality education, the Latvian Education Act was amended in 2015 to include compulsory education on human dignity, freedom, family, marriage, work, nature and culture. (37 §4, Ministerkabinettet, 2016)

A Polish citizens’ initiative (ECI) proposed (2019) a bill to extend the criminalization of “public approval or encouragement of sexual activity of minors”, which is still pending in the Polish Parliament. (38, Counting stars, 2020) The European Parliament has condemned this proposal, arguing that it would lead to the criminalisation of comprehensive sexuality education. (39, EU, 2019)

Popular Resistance

Many people feel uncomfortable when sexual acts and thought patterns are normalized in children. It is a natural and innate reaction to protect children.

In Sweden, too, the aversion to comprehensive sexuality education is mentioned. Advocates are bothered by the reluctance of society and of the children’s parents. It seems to be best not to inform parents about what is going on. (40, Skolverket, 2022c)

But the reluctance is not only with the parents, it is also with the teachers. They also feel discomfort. Proponents emphasize that in one’s role as a teacher, one must be able to disregard one’s own values. A professional teacher must be able to work through the anxiety and discomfort. (7 p. 95, UNESCO, 2018)

Giving children a healthy foundation regarding relationships and sexuality doesn’t have to be more complicated than letting children know that as a parent, you always make time for them no matter what questions or concerns they have. School can help support children’s development, but it must always be on the family’s terms.

The responsibility for the upbringing of children must lie with their parents, who choose the values they want to pass on. Only parents can create a lifetime of security for their children.

Children in harmonious families have the best conditions to grow up to be secure, strong and happy people. The family is therefore often the most important social structure. The real driving forces of comprehensive sexuality education can be sensed when its proponents see as opponents precisely those who desire family-friendly societies. (41, BMJ Global Health, 2021)

One of the reasons why the sexualization of children has been allowed to go this far is the public’s ignorance of the content of comprehensive sex education in elementary and middle school. We can all do a lot of good by informing others and in that way helping to create a public discussion about the content we really want in Swedish preschool and primary school.

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