Spirits are high at a Basel secondary school: today they’re going to talk about sex. Whether it’s a typical lesson is hard to say as Switzerland has no federal guidelines on the topic – a problem, say many, and one that may not be resolved soon.
In this particular Basel suburb, it kicks off with a game resulting in giggles and some pink cheeks. Given a word on a card, each student has to define it without actually using the word.
“This gives us a chance to see what terminology the students are familiar with,” explains Cécile Notter of the Basel branch of AIDS-Hilfe. She coordinates a team of educators specially trained to visit schools in the region and explain the key points of HIV prevention.
Having had some basic education already, this morning’s 13-15-year-olds are relatively knowledgeable. However, there is some uncertainty about the meaning of clitoris, Viagra and quickie. Asked about the last one, a boy answers: “It’s when you have sex with your clothes on”.
Well, not necessarily, says Notter, giving a brief explanation before her male colleague whisks the lads into another room for a boys-only session. Once they’re gone, a girl asks for more clarification on quickies before they get on with the main subject for the day: safe sex.
No formal system
According to the non-governmental organisation Sexual Health Switzerland, it’s problematic that Switzerland has no federal guidelines on what subjects must be covered and at what age.
“The system is not well-formalised – it’s generally up to the schools to decide what they want to do. Kids from around 12 usually have or have already had some kind of sex education,” Sexual Health’s Rainer Kamber told swissinfo.ch, noting that Swiss schools were doing “a really good job overall”.
But “usually” and “overall” still aren’t good enough, according to the organisation, which recommends that Switzerland legally guarantee equal access to comprehensive sex education to all children and adolescents.
Kamber said that there were major differences in how the subject was handled from school to school, canton to canton, and especially between the French- and German-speaking parts of the country. For example, sex ed tends to be more formally organised in the French-speaking cantons, and it starts at an earlier age.
In western Switzerland, even kindergarten pupils (aged four to six) learn basic information about the differences between boys and girls and where babies come from – as well as how to deal with unwanted touching.
“In principle we would like mandatory sex education, but the question of when to start is really something that specialists should answer, and not NGOs,” Kamber said.
An institute that specialises in answering this and other questions is the Competence Centre for Sexual Education and Schools. But it’s going to close at the end of June 2013.
“Here in Switzerland we have a lot of experience with different models of sex education. Sometimes it’s the classroom teacher, sometimes an external educator, or a combination. We definitely have the best results with mixed models.
That has to do with the fact that especially teenagers don’t like to talk with their teachers about sex. It’s too private, so they won’t ask certain questions to the teachers that they see every day – especially if they don’t have a good relationship with that teacher.
So here, the external experts have a really important position to fill – mainly one of objectivity and neutrality.”
– Rainer Kamber, Sexual Health Switzerland
Closure of competence centre
Established by the Federal Office of Public Health in 2006, the competence centre serves as a national resource in terms of training teachers and recommending age-appropriate educational materials. It’s based at the University of Teacher Education Central Switzerland (PHZ) in Lucerne.
Yet controversy stirred up by conservative groups resulted in the health office withdrawing its mandate and funds, declaring that sex education fell under the jurisdiction of the individual cantons and not the federal authorities. However, the office also said that the centre was doing a good job, an opinion shared by Cécile Notter and Rainer Kamber.
Titus Bürgisser, head of the centre as well as of the PHZ’s department of health promotion, knows that sex education is a sensitive subject and that people have different opinions about how to go about it. What he can’t understand is why anybody would want to forbid sex education altogether.
“They’re making the topic more of a taboo, and that’s certainly not in the interest of the children or conducive to their protection. To forbid sex education is the worst way to go about it,” Bürgisser told swissinfo.ch.
“In German-speaking Switzerland, school teachers have more responsibility and they can get support from an external expert if desired. It depends on the teacher’s level of engagement and how intensely he wants to cover the topic.
In French-speaking Switzerland, the task has been delegated to these external educators, who will visit a class two or three times – but often on an isolated basis. We’re trying to foster a more mixed model."
– Titus Bürgisser, University of Teacher Education Central Switzerland
“The closure of the centre was a success for us,” said Dominik Müggler, father of five and a member of an interest group trying to block mandatory sex education for kindergarten and primary school pupils.
Called “Yes to protection from sexualisation in kindergarten and primary school”, the initiative would legally forbid sex education for children under nine and make it voluntary between the ages of nine and 12. The proposal also calls for mandatory biology education from age 12, with a focus on reproduction and development.
“We’re not against sex education, but we are against it being mandatory for children as young as four years old. Nobody should be confronted with sex-related content against their will – and certainly not at this young age,” Müggler told swissinfo.ch. “We are in favour of educational measures to prevent child abuse, but without sex education content and without ideology.”
The group started collecting signatures in June 2012 and had 70,000 as of June 2013. So far they’ve gotten the most support in the cities of Fribourg, Basel and Sion. They have until late December 2013 to gather the 100,000 necessary to put the initiative to a nationwide vote.
“If it’s successful, then many children would either not receive sex education or would be educated exclusively by their parents, and we know that many parents don’t talk about sex with their children, or they’re highly biased,” pointed out Kamber.
Notter finds that if it’s not being discussed at home, then there is all the more need for sex education at school.
“Sex education should be a part of school because of the children’s rights to equal opportunities and age-appropriate information – even if parents also want to cover the topic at home,” Notter said.
The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education has no single recommendation for how schools should handle the subject. While the French-speaking cantons already have a lesson plan, the German-speaking ones are still working on one. A first draft will be presented on June 28.
Back in Basel, the 90-minute session is nearly over. The girls are putting condoms on wooden “penises” and the latex barely stretches over the extra-large models.
“If you’re supposed to carry a condom around just in case, how do you know what size?” asks one girl worriedly. There’s a knock on the door when the boys are ready to re-join the girls, but Notter calls out, “Not yet!”.
One fellow bursts in anyway, raises his eyebrows, and quickly retreats once he sees what his female classmates are up to. Indeed, it seems that having a mix of joint and separate classes makes sense at this age.
A 2009 study commissioned by the Federal Commission for Child and Youth Affairs found that young people today are not more sexually active than 20 years ago. Among 1,500 people aged 12 to 20 surveyed, more than half were sexually active by the age of 17. Of this group, most girls had had their first sexual encounter at the age of 16 and boys at the age of 15.
Most girls said they learned about sex from their peers (27 per cent) and magazines (18 per cent), while boys found out information from the Internet (30 per cent) and friends (26 per cent). Overall, only 13 per cent of boys and girls said they learned about sex from school and eight per cent from their parents.