• Summary
  • Contents
  • Subject index

This two-volume Handbook provides a major thematic overview of global sexualities, spanning each of the continents, and its study, which is both reflective and prospective, and includes traditional approaches and emerging themes. The Handbook offers a robust theoretical underpinning and critical outlook on current global, glocal, and 'new' sexualities and practices, whilst offering an extensive reflection on current challenges and future directions of the field. The broad coverage of topics engages with a range of theories, and maintains a multi-disciplinary framework. PART ONE: Understanding Sexuality: Epistemologies/Conceptual and Methodological Challenges; PART TWO: Enforcing and Challenging Sexual Norms; PART THREE: Interrogating/Undoing Sexual Categories; PART FOUR: Enhancement Practices and Sexual Markets/Industries; PART FIVE: Sexual Rights and Citizenship (And the Governance of Sexuality); PART SIX: Sexuality and Social Movements; ...

Chapter 10: Sexuality Education: International Policies, Global Developments, and Contemporary Research Perspectives

Sexuality Education: International Policies, Global Developments, and Contemporary Research Perspectives
Sexuality education: international policies, global developments, and contemporary research perspectives
Barbara Rothmüller Marion Thuswald

In the course of the twentieth century, sexuality education has become an important subject of national and international policies, geared towards the regulation of population growth and sexual health. From a global perspective, the discourses within and practices of sexuality education vary widely, ranging from discouragement to a pleasure-oriented affirmation of sexual activities, and from heterosexual relationship education and disease prevention to LGBTI support and human rights-based sex education. While we tried to cover a range of countries in the following overview of international sexuality education policies, we are aware that the chapter tends to privilege developments in the Global North due to the limited selection of English- and German-speaking literature. Additionally, particular national literature displays significant differences in terminology that are sometimes not easy to translate into other languages. One important distinction in the Anglophone literature concerns ‘sex education', usually used to address school-based and curricula-based teaching and learning, and ‘sexuality education', referring to explicit and implicit learning in different institutions during the life course (Fields et al., 2015: 371). In this chapter, we address both aspects against the backdrop of cultural politics of sexualities as well as the transformation of sex education policies. In addition, we focus on the professionalization of teaching and learning in the field of sexuality education.

Sex education offers a structured environment for learning about sexuality and provides opportunities to reach large numbers of young people before they become sexually active (UNESCO, 2018: 12). Nevertheless, sexual learning is influenced by a complex interplay of peers, media, religion, and family – among other social, cultural, and political factors that shape sexuality education throughout the life course. Researchers have pointed out that policy makers tend to overestimate the importance of formal sex education. As Zimmerman asserts in his global history of sex education,

When it came to sex, however, the most influential global force was never the school. Starting with magazines and films and culminating in television and the Internet, mass media had a much more profound effect on children's sexuality in the twentieth century than any set of formal educational institutions. Indeed, sex educators often designed their curricula as an explicit challenge to crass media images and ideologies. (Zimmerman, 2015: 148)

The availability of new information and communication technologies has also had a great impact on young people's access to sexual knowledge and sexual imagery. While internet access has created chances for young people to gain knowledge, it may also confront them with confusing information and imagery. New challenges, such as online pornography, cyber mobbing, or sexting have also gained scholarly attention in recent years (e.g. Kostenwein, 2018; Döring, 2014).

Our chapter provides an overview of the historical development and current state of sex education policies and global research and practices in the first section, and in the second section focuses on the local development of sexuality education in two European countries: Austria and Germany.

Differences in Sexuality Education Approaches: An Introductory Overview

Since the mid twentieth century, several competing approaches to sex education have spread across the globe. Tiffany Jones (2011) reconstructs at least four broad international orientations: conservative, liberal, critical, and post-modern, within which she distinguishes between several discourses, representing significant differences in educational goals and/or deployed methods.

Conservative sexuality education is primarily concerned with delaying sexual activity and reducing the number of sexual partners, often drawing on moral arguments. The reproductive dimension of sexuality and its relation to a monogamous, heterosexual, and romantic partnership is key to this approach, aiming to preserve traditional family models. Examples of conservative orientations across the globe include the ‘birds and bees’ discourse, ex-gay/Christian redemption, or abstinence education (Jones, 2011: 377).

Liberal programs like comprehensive sex education, sexual liberationist, or effective relationship discourses usually refrain from excessive moralizing. Their objectives include informing adolescents about safer sex practices and enabling them to develop their own opinion and practice self-determination and freedom of choice. Consequently, liberal approaches teach about contraception and have a specific focus on risky behaviors and disease prevention.

Conservative and liberal approaches are often viewed as oppositional positions in the field of sex education, referring back to the ‘clash between two poles – sexual conservatism and sexual liberalism’ (Fields et al., 2015: 373). Yet researchers have pointed out that the seemingly clear-cut opposition is fuzzier than was often thought. For example, both discourses are based on the presumption that ‘sexuality and adolescence are sites of risk and danger’ – a problem to which adolescents’ education is providing a solution (Fields et al., 2015: 374; Lesko, 2010). Applying a risk focus, conservative as well as liberal approaches often equate ‘sexuality with danger and education with intervention’ (Fields et al., 2015: 379). Finally, both approaches insufficiently address unequal social conditions and institutional settings that are systematically structuring adolescents’ decision making.

In contrast, critical and post-modern orientations in sex education de-dramatize children's and young people's sexualities. Socialist sexual politics, radical Freudian or radical feminist discourses since the 1970s, for example, place emphasis on pleasure and sexual well-being (Jones, 2011: 379). Equity, social justice, and post-colonial discourses focus on unequal conditions of sexual development and foster inclusion. Like post-modern orientations such as diversity education or queer theory, critical discourses advocate for emancipatory goals and the empowerment of adolescents. Inequalities, power dynamics, and heteronormativity are problematized.

Since the 1990s, particularly from feminist and queer perspectives, hegemonic approaches to sexuality education have been modified to increase sexual well-being of LGBTIQ people. The focus on the recognition of LGBTIQ rights as human rights is internationally mirrored in the Yogyakarta Principles (ARC International, 2006) and the Yogyakarta Principles+10 (ARC International, 2017). These principles aim for the recognition of gender and sexual diversity and the protection of LGBTIQ persons from violence and discrimination regardless of their ‘actual, perceived and attributed’ ‘sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics’ (preamble of Yogyakarta Principles+10, ARC International, 2017). While the UN has not officially accepted these principles, an independent expert on violence and discrimination for gender identity and sexual orientation was established by the Human Rights Council resolution 32/2 in 2016 (UNHRC, 2016).

The focus on gay rights and antidiscrimination in some countries, however, was also blamed for depoliticizing queer agendas. As Diane Richardson (2018: 41) summarizes, ‘one of the costs of recognition, in emphasizing individual rather than collective rights, is that the operations of power and the role of social institutions that sustain gendered and sexualized inequalities are disguised, which makes addressing them more difficult'. Researchers and activists from the Global South, on the other hand, criticize the hegemonic ‘Western’ queer politics for their identity-based policies and neo-colonial modes of implementation. New forms of exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities draw on sexual attitudes, like open-mindedness and queer identities, to underpin nationalistic agendas. An increase in what Puar (2007) has called ‘homonationalism’ – that is, the appropriation of gay politics in the construction of an imagined community of sexually liberal citizens vis-à-vis the other sexual citizens – also affects the provision of sexuality education (Rothmüller, 2018; Nagel, 2003).

Recent developments in anti-discriminatory and post-colonial theories raise awareness of intersecting inequalities in sex education: gender and sexualities are entangled with other social differences such as race, class, ability, or religion (Jones, 2011: 379f.; Rédai, 2019). While some (not all) sexuality education approaches address gender and sexual diversity and/or discrimination due to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in their programs, other sexual inequalities are still tackled insufficiently in sex education professional communities in most countries across the globe.

Global Developments of Sexuality Education in the Twentieth Century

While sexuality education had been part of children's socialization before the twentieth century, it was not until the second decade of the twentieth century that the movement for sex education in public schools started. According to Carter (2001: 213), US public schools introduced sex education ‘at the cultural moment when vocal public criticism of many social ills was paired with an equally articulate optimism about education's ability to effect their cure'. The fact that teachers and other state educators are expected to solve the social problem of sexuality in societies across the world is the result of historical and ongoing processes that are regularly challenged by parents on the one hand, and religious authorities on the other hand. For a long time, sexuality education was perceived to be primarily a task carried out by the family and in private (Sauerteig and Davidson, 2009). In spite of this, during the course of the twentieth century, many states adapted sexual politics to regulate population growth and sexually transmitted infections – a process now referred to as ‘bio-politics’ (Foucault, 1978). To avoid an allegedly early sexual awakening of children, sexual reproduction was often addressed indirectly in biology lessons, drawing on the reproduction of plants, insects, and mammals (Carter, 2001).

From the 1970s, teachers were increasingly perceived to be the ones who ought to promote health and relationship education. Yet some teachers were also suspected to be transmitting the ‘wrong’ moral standards. Teachers’ sexuality was closely monitored and, in particular, gay teachers were met with suspicion, or even banned from teaching at all in some countries, for example the United States: ‘No matter their gender, people who taught about sex in schools could not avoid questions about their own sexuality’ (Zimmerman, 2015: 139). The controversies over sexuality education caused many teachers across the globe to refrain from addressing sexual issues at school, often due to a lack of their own training in sexuality education.

From a global perspective, today's hegemonic approaches to sex education were developed in the United States and continental Europe and exported to other parts of the world in the mid twentieth century (Zimmerman, 2015). US state policies include abstinence-only, abstinence-plus, and comprehensive sex education programs. Abstinence-only programs advocate sexual abstinence before marriage and do not provide information on contraception, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality. Abstinence-plus programs include some information on these topics but still have a strong focus on abstinence. Comprehensive sex education signifies an approach that includes topics such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, contraception, gender equality, the prevention of sexual violence, and – not always – sexual diversity, masturbation, and abortion. Many current comprehensive sex education policies reach beyond a knowledge-based education and promote, among others, a reflection on values and participatory methods, and encourage critical thinking.

The international promotion of family planning since the 1960s, inspired by political debates on demographic growth, led to the establishment of one of the most influential global agencies in sexuality education, sexual health, and counseling: the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Advocating for freedom of choice and sexual rights, IPPF provides its services in more than 150 countries today. International policy papers on sex(uality) education that are developed by organizations, such as the IPPF, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), promote a specific form of comprehensive sexuality education.

Rights-based approaches to sexuality education gained strong support in Scandinavia and particularly in Sweden, which in 1955 was the first country to implement sex education in schools and also exported some of its innovative curricula to other countries. Countries like Sweden or Germany have historically established a ‘holistic’ sexuality education (WHO/BZgA, 2010). Holistic approaches do not restrict their focus to risk prevention. Rather, they acknowledge sexuality as a positive aspect of human development requiring age-appropriate educational efforts to enable young people to develop a satisfactory sexuality and sexual well-being. Particularly in the 1970s, Scandinavian and German teaching material was exported, and translated into other languages (Zimmerman, 2015).

Zimmerman summarizes the international opposition in his global history of sex education, stating that, ‘Unlike American sex educators, who emphasized family stability as the bedrock of world peace, the Swedes stressed individual freedom and happiness’ (2015: 68). This difference in approach among so-called Western sex education is further illustrated by the European Office of the WHO. The WHO emphasizes that international literature tends to focus on the US-centered divide between liberal and comprehensive sexuality education, but does not sufficiently recognize the hegemony of a traditionally holistic sexuality education in ‘Western Europe'. It states:

In Europe, sexuality education is in the first place personal-growth-oriented, whereas in the United States of America it is primarily problem-solving, or prevention-oriented. There are a wide variety of historical, social and cultural reasons for this fundamental difference (…). In Western Europe, sexuality, as it emerges and develops during adolescence, is not primarily perceived as a problem and a threat, but as a valuable source of personal enrichment. (WHO/BZgA, 2010: 15)

While family planning was implemented in many countries across the world, some countries resisted the import of ‘Western’ sexuality education programs. Additionally, within countries that initially supported sexuality education, strong alliances of religious authorities, conservative lobbies, and the new right movement formed to oppose a sexuality education considered too liberal. Some Eastern European countries introduced – and then revised – their sex education curricula after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when for example in Poland the Catholic Church pushed for a restriction of abortion in the mid 1990s (Zimmerman, 2015: 128f.). The Global Right and its family-oriented, anti-pleasure campaigns received financial support internationally, among others, from the George W. Bush administration. At the turn of the century, conservatives put significant pressure on international organizations to promote abstinence-only sex education and institutionalize sexual abstinence as an alternative to safer sex practices, at home and also in countries of the Global South (Zimmerman, 2015). On a more local level, sex educators working in countries with an established tradition of comprehensive sexuality education have faced push-back by right-wing groups and conservative parents since the end of the twentieth century. This was particularly the case in Eastern European countries, where the development of sex education curricula ‘has recently been slowed down because of the emergence of fundamentalism (political, cultural, and religious) in different public spheres', as concluded in a report of the European Office of the WHO and the Federal Center for Health Education in Germany (WHO/BZgA, 2010: 12).

Practices of Sexuality Education and Challenges to Policy Implementation

In many countries across the globe, the history of sex education can be seen as the transformation of strategies aimed at discouraging people from having sex outside of marriage, notes Carter (2001: 214). Although significant shifts can be observed in sex education policies, the focus often did not change fundamentally, as a review of the ‘International technical guidance on sexuality education’ demonstrates in 2018. Published by UNESCO, the guidance refers to a comprehensive sex education approach.1 In the section ‘Evidence base for comprehensive sex education', the guidance identified six main outcomes of curriculum-based sexuality education programs in existing studies. The first three of them are: ‘Delay initiation of sexual intercourse, decrease frequency of sexual intercourse and decrease number of sexual partners’ (UNESCO, 2018: 28). While these points may not reflect the vital aims within the UNESCO guidance for promoting a comprehensive sex education, this list shows, however, that the delay and reduction of young people's sexual activity is still an important aim of sex education today.

Discouraging young people from sexual activity has not remained unchallenged. Following the so-called 1968 movement and second wave feminist movements in the late 1960s, the right to sexual pleasure and self-determination including freedom of choice became an important issue in many countries (Richardson, 2018: 33). This issue along with the debates on AIDS, pornography, and BDSM in the 1980s significantly affected sex education policies. Although in some parts of Germany and in Sweden they had institutionalized a more sex-positive approach, many countries’ sex education programs did not sufficiently address students’ everyday concerns, nor did they account for pleasure as an important aspect of human sexuality, and particularly if it was linked to women's sexual desire (cf. Fine, 1988; see section on female pleasure below).

Traditional sex education often focused on rational arguments and scientific knowledge to inform children and young adults about behavioral norms, sexual values, and risks. In recent years, however, comprehensive sexuality education has emphasized the necessity to connect sexual information to attitudes and everyday experiences of young people. Emotions and body competences are becoming important aspects of sexuality education policies in that context. A recent report of the IPPF, for example, stresses that today's sex education is still ‘too little, too late and too biological, and does not sufficiently address broader emotional, moral or social issues’ (IPPF, 2016: 9). Despite widespread social change in the field of sexual politics, sexuality was (and partly still remains) a taboo in schools. Talking about sexuality is not an easy task for many teachers and has for a long time been perceived as ‘difficult’ (Buston et al., 2001). Some aspects of sexuality, like emotions and corporeal sensations, are difficult to verbalize, and even more so in a school environment that requires teaching a large group of students, which is often oriented towards rational knowledge transmission and assessment. Thus, talking about sexuality in educational settings requires the acknowledgment of certain limits within the institutional framework and of language (Müller, 1992). Other researchers argue that it is an important challenge for sex educators to help students tackle emotional conflicts and provide tools to think about – and enact – their emotional experiences (Rothmüller, 2019a; Sandlos, 2010). Hence, sexuality education has been undergoing a shift towards research on emotions and affectivity in recent years (Lesko, 2010).

Sex education approaches and the organizational structure of school-based sex education practices vary widely in different countries. While in Scandinavian countries, sex education starts in kindergarten, sex and relationship education in the UK is compulsory from 11 years old – with the option for parents to remove their children from class. It is not only the age of pupils that varies, but also the occupation or profession of the people teaching sex education. In Hungary, school nurses are responsible for teaching classes on sexuality, and tend to focus on biological and health issues (Rédai, 2019). In South Africa, sex education is included in a school subject called Life Orientation taught by teachers trained in that specific subject (Francis, 2017). While some countries dedicate a specific subject to sexuality education, other countries institutionalize sexuality as a topic relevant for education and learning in general. Quite different from these modes of formal sex education, Fko Shui Che (2005) reports that sex education in Hong Kong's secondary schools is often implemented through the informal curriculum, such as school assemblies, special function days, and visits to relevant organizations, or is integrated in other extra-curricular activities (Che, 2005: 286).

Some countries have no or very restrictive sex education policies. In her ethnographic study on sex education teacher training in a southern US state, Brigitte Scott (2013) shows how teachers are trained to avoid or stop questions from students that go beyond an abstinence-based curriculum (Scott, 2013). Interestingly, even countries that support comprehensive sex education at a policy level do not seem to pay much attention to its implementation. Che suggests that one ‘danger of sex education in school may be the “wishy-washy” manner in which it is implemented. (…) Schools believe that they are implementing sex education but there are doubts as to whether it is seriously and effectively carried out’ (Che, 2005: 292). Even though less research exists on the actual practices and experiences of sexuality education, the ‘limited research available suggests teachers resist formal sexuality education policies and agendas with which they feel uncomfortable’ (Fields et al., 2015: 374).

South Africa, for example, has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world regarding constitutional and legislative rights, protecting and promoting non-discrimination of LGBTIQ people (Francis, 2017: 6). However, as Francis has shown, the progressive legislation is not reflected in school policies, pedagogy, and classroom norms and interaction.2 Francis highlights that teachers – despite their lack of training – show a commitment to change, learn, and teach about sexuality diversity. Nevertheless, their classroom practices can be called quintessentially heterosexist and heteronormative. Heterosexuality is normalized e.g. through the privileging of heterosexuality by constructing homosexuality as an add-on, or through positioning homosexuality as outside of the school community (Francis, 2017: 114).

Studies on comprehensive sex education programs that include in-service training for teachers show as well that programs often only reach those goals that align with teachers’ routines and needs, for example, providing more scientifically accurate knowledge or strengthening teachers’ confidence in sex education (Wight and Buston, 2003). Conversely, programs are not successful in achieving goals that conflict with the values and routines of teachers: Vanwesenbeeck and colleagues (2015) report that teachers tend to avoid topics that do not reflect their personal values, and Wight and Buston (2003) add that particularly participatory methods are rarely implemented by teachers, as they differ significantly from their everyday professional routines: ‘Meeting needs, but not changing goals', the authors conclude (2003). Consequently, some sex education proponents argue that instead of teachers, (school-external) professionals should provide sex education in schools (Wight and Buston, 2003).

Che (2005) identifies additional obstacles to an effective implementation of comprehensive sex education policies in Taiwan that may be applicable to other countries: (1) the lack of trained teachers or other experts that are willing and able to deliver sex education as stated in the policies; (2) the lack of a dedicated time for sex education; (3) the overloading of curricula in general that limit space for sex education; and (4) the controversy around sexual values and the value of sex education among teacher, parents, and community leaders that discourages teachers to raise contentious topics (Che, 2005: 284–93). In other countries and studies, further obstacles can be located in (5) the general social taboo and the lack of discourse around sexuality – especially concerning young people's sexuality, female pleasure, sexual violence, and abortion (Vanwesenbeeck et al., 2015; Zimmerman, 2015); (6) the lack of resources for education in general (Wight and Buston, 2003); (7) the lack of support for sex educators in the school environment (ibd.); (8) the heteronormativity and race and class bias of available sex education material (Francis, 2017); and (9) the lack of research on sexuality education, which is a challenge for its implementation and development, leading researchers to conclude that some countries ‘appear to be uncharted territories’ in that respect (Sauerteig and Davidson, 2009: 11).

Controversial and Contemporary Issues in Sexuality Education

While the last section summarized the many (organizational) challenges in implementing comprehensive sex education policies, the following section provides an overview of contemporary key debates in academic and professional discourses on sex education. Reviewing contemporary discourses on sexuality education, we identify the following key issues and controversies:

Strengthening a Power-Sensitive and Rights-Based Approach

Sex education has a strong tradition of pedagogies that focus on danger and risk prevention, and often emphasize (reproductive) health issues. However, since the 1990s, the sex education debate has been shifting towards a more power-sensitive and empowering, rights-based approach. This is obvious in the international policy papers such as the UNESCO guidance (2018) published in the new millennium that situate comprehensive sex education within a framework of human rights and gender equality. Evidence shows that sensitivity to power and structural hierarchies is crucial in sex education: sex education programs that address gender (in)equalities, for example, are more effective in reaching their goals (UNESCO, 2018). In that context, empowerment has become a key concept. The importance of gender equality is also addressed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, announced by the United Nations in 2015. It encompasses one objective that is committed to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ (Goal 5).

Discussing the Relationship between Teaching Danger and Teaching Pleasure

Risk-oriented sex education policies were challenged by feminist scholars who wanted to include pleasure and desire in sex education curricula. The debate was initiated by Michelle Fine's article ‘Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire'. It was published in 1988 and has been taken up by many feminist authors since (e.g. Allen et al., 2014; Cameron-Lewis and Allen, 2013; Fine and McClelland, 2006). Tolman (2005) points out that girls are still seen as the objects of boys’ desires and are not considered to have desires of their own. While feminist activists and scholars stressed the importance of talking about female sexual desire and pleasure, in some feminist circles the movement was also raising awareness of sexual violence against women and children, leading to child abuse prevention programs in some countries. Cameron-Lewis and Allen (2013) point out that sexuality education and preventive sexual abuse education are often separate subjects in secondary schools, e.g. in New Zealand. While they value the separation as a response to a particular moment in history when the acknowledgment of sex-positive sexuality and pleasure in sexuality education was politically important, they argue for overcoming this separation.

They highlight that it “denies space for young people to grapple with the concept of consent, the art of negotiation, the interrelatedness and acknowledgment of pleasure, danger and ambivalence within sexually intimate relations and the complexities of sexualities” (ibid.: 121).

Similarly, Garcia and Fields (2017: 474) argue that ‘educators must link pleasure to mutuality and care for oneself and others'. As Cameron-Lewis and Allen (2013: 130) write, this combination is necessary to support young people to navigate their sexual experiences in ways that are positive to them and their partners.

If sexuality education is to be relevant to, and reflect the real lives of, young people, then it needs to canvass all aspects of their experiences, i.e. the good, the bad, the ambivalent, and shades in between. It is unlikely that young people will only have good experiences of sexual activity, so why should sexuality education make exclusive reference to the positive?

Consent and negotiation, Cameron-Lewis and Allen (2013) argue, might be

reconfigured within a discourse of ethical erotics which acknowledges the complexities of intimate relationships.

Troubling Compulsory Heterosexuality and Heteronormativity

In some comprehensive sex education programs, non-heterosexual desires and relationships are included to a certain extent. While homosexuality is the most common orientation to be mentioned, e.g. bisexuality and asexuality are often left out, as is knowledge on gender diversity, transgender, intersex, and non-binary gender identities and expressions. Nevertheless, there are initiatives that argue for an inclusive sex education: Eli R. Green (2010) has reviewed the current status of trans inclusion in sexuality education and suggests strategies for implementing it. Programs that include LGB(TIQ) topics usually advocate against discrimination. Yet they rarely offer knowledge about non-heterosexual sexualities, trouble heteronormativity as a culturally institutionalized norm that structures society in general and schools in particular, nor account for the intersectional varieties of LGBTIQ experiences beyond bullying (Fields et al., 2014). Moreover, it is often left out that heteronormativity not only leads to the exclusion and discrimination of non-heterosexual desires and relationships but also structures interactions between women/girls and men/boys and privileges certain forms of heterosexual relationships (Busche et al., 2019).

Debating Gender-Separated over Mixed Settings in Sex Education

Due to highly gendered sexual norms, the question of whether single-sex education classes are preferable to mixed-sex classes has often been discussed (see Allen, 2011; Strange et al., 2003). Alongside earlier analyses (Buston and Wight, 2004), literature suggests that girls find it easier to participate in sex education lessons when among other girls. However, all young people may benefit from mixed sex education classes: Researchers argue that talking about sexuality among different genders helps them to ‘develop a greater understanding of gendered perspectives and, hopefully, greater respect’ for different approaches to sexual and romantic activities (see Wight et al., 1998: 320). Yet, if students feel too uncomfortable to participate in discussions in mixed-sex contexts, it is claimed that theory may not translate into practice (Buston and Wight, 2004). The question of gender and sex education is also challenged from a queer and non-binary perspective. Schmutzer and Thuswald discuss how the separation of a group according to gender identities or the legal gender markers can be seen as an opportunity to introduce the idea of more than two genders (2016: 80).

Re-Thinking the ‘Best Educator’ Debate

Due to the challenges of implementing comprehensive sex education outlined above, some scholars and professionals argue that teachers might not be the best promoters of sex education. Some suggest sex education professionals may take over the job (Wight and Buston, 2003), while others argue for peer education. In her study about young people's perspectives on sex education, Luisa Allen points out that students did not find it important ‘who’ offered sex education but rather ‘what they're like’ (Allen, 2011: 107f.). She concludes that qualities like ‘being knowledgeable’ and ‘able to relate to young people’ were considered more important by the students than the background of the sex educators (nurse, peer educators…) and their personal characteristics (gender, age…) (Allen, 2011: 130).

Developing Anti-Racist Sexuality Education

‘Multicultural education’ approaches highlight conflicts that arise in immigrant societies over sexuality education. Conservative immigrants would join forces with conservative non-immigrant groups, effectively resisting sex education in schools, as argued by e.g. Jonathan Zimmerman (2015). Other research shows that conflicts are rather linked to the racialization of sexuality by right-wing politics and media campaigns, which use sexuality as a surface on which racist stereotypes are projected, affecting contemporary sexuality education reforms and provision in immigrant societies (Rothmüller, 2018, 2019a; Christmann, 2017). Studying sexual health curricula in Canada and Sweden, researchers argue for the need to develop an anti-racist sex education (Whitten and Sethna, 2014; Bredström, 2005).

Enabling Participation through Arts-Based Approaches

One promising approach to offer students more diverse perspectives on sexualities might be the development of pedagogical material in the overlap of sex education and other curricula, e.g. in subjects like arts, literature, or history (Schmutzer and Thuswald, 2019; Huch and Lücke, 2015). While tremendously diverse information and visual imagery about sexuality are currently available to young people on the internet, students often lack opportunities to discuss and critically assess what they read and see online. Engaging youth in conversations on sexuality also requires taking their own experiences and resources seriously. Examples of participatory approaches are the video-supported storytelling method of the Beyond Bullying Project, which encourages and collects stories of LGBT in schools (Fields et al., 2014), or the project All included, where a youth museum collaborates with schools on gender and sexuality diversity (Busche et al., 2019). The volume Teaching Desires (Thuswald and Sattler, 2016) developed sexuality education for art instruction. Drawing on reflexive photography, the participatory research project Imagining Desires (2018) engages students in a collection and critical analysis of visual imagery of desires as can be found in the daily lives of the students, as well as in art and sex education material (Sattler and Thuswald, 2019; Rothmüller, 2019a). Recent research points towards arts-based approaches to sexuality education as a promising tool to engage with visual, emotional, and pleasurable aspects of sexuality – aspects that are often overlooked due to the overall focus on risk prevention (Schmutzer and Thuswald, 2019; Garcia and Fields, 2017). As a consequence, recent work has focused on the intersection of art and sex education, e.g. by employing film and video methods in the setting of participatory film-making (McGeeney, 2017).

Transformations of Sexuality Education: Liberalization, Retraditionalization, and Professionalization in Austria and Germany

The following section analyzes transformations of academic and professional discourses, policies, and practices of sexuality education in two Central European countries: Austria and Germany, both democratic republican states and members of the EU. The academic and professional discourses on sexuality education in these two countries are closely connected, which is a result of historical processes as well as the dominant German language in both countries. In international comparison, Austria and Germany are classified as conservative or Christian-democratic welfare states. Despite their conservative family-focused policies, and histories of racialization of sexuality during and after the Nazi era (Sauerteig and Davidson, 2009; Sager, 2015), both countries have established holistic sexuality education policies today (European Parliament, 2013).

As we will now illustrate, transformations and continuities are important aspects of contemporary sexuality education in both societies: sexual politics since 1968 have sustainably altered sexual cultures, particularly in the urban centers, promoting sexual liberalism as part of the national identity of self-identified ‘sexual democracies’ (Fassin, 2010). At the same time, both societies are facing an anti-feminist and right-wing push-back against a diversity-orientated sex education under the banner of protecting the sexually innocent child. Sexuality education is thus an important area of social and political conflict in Austria and Germany today. Finally, we address the current state of professionalization and important dynamics in the field of sexuality education and research in both countries.


A first liberal sexual reform movement was already formed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sexual reformers and sexologists like Magnus Hirschfeld or the psychoanalyst Annie Reich (2016 [1932]; Sager, 2016) played important roles in the early development. Hirschfeld founded the Institute of Sex Research and fostered research on child sexuality, among other topics like homosexuality and transgender issues (Förster, 2012). Annie and Wilhelm Reich, both Marxist psychoanalysts, founded the Socialist Society for Sexual Counseling and Sexual Research (Sozialistische Gesellschaft für Sexualberatung und Sexualforschung), which advocated for the legalization of abortion, sexual freedom and sexual counseling to improve the living condition of workers (Sager, 2016). After the persecution of this first liberal reform movement in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, it was not until the 1968 movement that the idea of emancipatory sex education was taken up again. It referred back to the writings of Wilhelm Reich (1999), who proclaimed sexual liberation an important aspect of revolutionary politics.

Following the early promotion of sexuality education in Scandinavia, the Federal Republic of Germany (GDR) (1968) and Austria (1970) were among the first countries to introduce sexuality education to school curricula in Europe (WHO/BZgA, 2010: 12). Debates on abortion and on implementing sex education in schools were closely linked during that time. Inspired by ideas of a sexual revolution, an emancipatory approach to sex education developed besides Christian-conservative and repressive approaches (see e.g. Koch, 2013; Schmidt and Sielert, 2012; Kentler, 1967). In the GDR, school-based sex education was recommended by a commission of all federal ministers of education in 1968 as a reaction to pupils’ and students’ movements, demanding a liberal and sex-positive sex education in schools. The GDR integrated some sexuality education content into family life education (IPPF Network Europe, 2006: 45). The film ‘Helga’ as well as the related book ‘Sexualkundeatlas’ (Atlas for Sex Education) targeting adults became internationally known even though they caused controversies in Germany.

While the attitude towards sexuality (education) in Germany is perceived to be mostly liberal, Austria was historically viewed to be more conservative in its sexual politics (IPPF Network Europe, 2006). The situation in Austria has been characterized by a low availability of sexuality education, even though sex education had been introduced as an interdisciplinary teaching principle by 1970. However, in practice, it is still mostly taken up in biology classes or covered by a one-time workshop of sex education experts. In 2004, the head of the Austrian Society for Research in Sexology, Rotraud Perner (2004: 46), concluded in a report that ‘Austria is a country without any tradition in sex education and pedagogy'. Particularly in elementary school, the sexuality of children is not recognized and thus not addressed in an adequate way (2004). In academic research in Austria as well as in Germany, the sexual development of children under the age of 10 remains mostly ignored (cf. Quindeau and Brumlik, 2012).

Currently, most academic writings on sex education in Germany and Austria follow a holistic approach characterized by concepts like ‘sex-friendly’ (sexualitätsfreundlich) (Schmidt and Sielert, 2012: 25), which means that young people's sexuality as well as various methods of contraception are accepted. Masturbation/solo sex and pleasure are recognized as important aspects of sexuality. Yet, as emancipatory approaches increasingly lose their former political call of changing society, and shift towards a more individualistic notion of sexual autonomy and self-determination, the differences between emancipatory and liberal approaches are becoming blurry.

Today, the general age of consent is 14 in both countries. However, additional legal paragraphs are in place to protect adolescents against exploitation by adults. In Germany, sexuality education is currently carried out differently according to the federal state laws and policies that vary from family and marriage-centered to progressive LGBTIQ-friendly policies. In Austria, sex education is one of several interdisciplinary ‘teaching principles’ that apply to all school subjects and all grades. The national policy paper on sex education, introduced in 1970, was revised in 2015 and refers to the ‘Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe', a policy paper developed by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the BZgA in 2010 (BMBF, 2015; WHO/BZgA, 2010). The standards as well as the national paper aim at comprehensive sexuality education and include a broad range of topics as well as teaching methods.

The establishment of sex education as an interdisciplinary teaching principle for all school subjects reflects and acknowledges the complexity of the topic. It encourages teachers to include questions of sex education in different subjects like literature, art, history, or geography. Its dispersed responsibility and the lack of preparation for sex education in teacher training often results in the fact that nobody feels responsible for sex education. As a consequence, sexuality is often left to biology classes and thus focuses exclusively on biologic knowledge and health care facts. There is, however, a range of sexuality education organizations offering on-site workshops for schools. Educators working for these NGOs usually hold a diploma in sexuality education and training. Many of these NGOs, however, are overbooked and lack financial resources, particularly in Austria where there is no specific national funding available for sex education. The situation is somewhat different in Germany due to the legal basis introduced in 1992. In Germany, the Federal Center for Health Education in Germany (BZgA: Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung) is officially responsible for sex education, develops and provides information material, and fosters research and training.

Among the many initiatives advocating sex education in schools and teacher training in Austria, we want to highlight Love Talks, the establishment of the Austrian Society for Sexologies (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Sexualwissenschaft), the Austrian Planned Parenthood Association (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Familienplanung), and the Institute of Sexuality Education and Therapies (Österreichisches Institut für Sexualpädagogik und Sexualtherapien) as training centers and sexuality education providers. In addition to for-profit and non-profit organizations in the field, volunteer organizations like achtung°liebe or queerconnexion offer sexuality or LGBTIQ education for schools as peer-to-peer education.

In 2015, the Austrian Ministry of Education established a National Center for Sex Education in Salzburg with the aim of coordinating and initiating activities in the field of education and research on sex education in schools as well as teacher training. Yet sex education beyond biological basic knowledge has, so far, no systematic place in Austrian schools: it is up to the individual schools and teachers whether the students receive sex education and, if so, of what quality it might be.


Since 2010, the inclusion of gender and sexual diversity in school curricula in general, and in sex education in particular, have been prevailing topics of controversy. In Germany and Austria, same-sex sexual acts of adults were legalized in the 1970s. However, discrimination on the grounds of sexualities remained common: until 2002 the age of consent for same-sex couples was 18 years, while it was 15 for heterosexual partners. As shown in international research that has found widespread bullying of suspected homosexual or ‘effeminate’ youth in educational institutions (Kleiner, 2015; Pascoe, 2007), ‘fag’ is still a commonly used slur in schools.

The cultural politics has changed to a certain degree in recent years, particularly after Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag queen singer, won the Eurovision Song Contest for Austria in 2014. Yet major legislative changes were only possible after prior rules of the Constitutional Courts in Austria and Germany. That holds true for the equalization of the age of consent, the bill on marriage for all couples irrespective of their genders, and for a court decision that introduces a third legal gender option (Bundesverfassungsgericht, 2017). Since 2015, these policies, however, are being contested, with a political push-back from men's rights and Catholic interest groups. Sexuality education has since become one element of a wider anti-feminist discourse (Sterkl, 2019; Hark and Villa, 2015).

In particular, sex education approaches that include diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations have been challenged by religious groups and conservatives as well as men's rights groups in Austria and Germany. In many cases, critics target specific sex education organizations and accuse them of inadequate teaching methods and morally problematic sex education classes (Henningsen et al., 2016; Vasold, 2016). In the German federal state Baden-Württemberg, the protest led to large petitions and demonstrations, while in Austria the debate was mainly limited to the media. Analyses of the attacks, however, show that they do not aim at an expertise debate about sex education policies, but rather can be understood as acts of post-truth populism (Claus, 2016; Tuider, 2016; Schmincke, 2015). Despite demands of e.g. the Austrian right-wing Freedom Party to cut the public funding of sex education organizations like the Styrian ‘Liebenslust’ in 2017, responsible politicians were backing sex education organizations and liberal policies until 2018.

Established sex education organizations that diverge from the comprehensive sexuality education standards have faced relatively limited reach in Germany and Austria. Abstinence is a sexual value relevant only to a small number of people in these countries. Conservatives in Germany or Austria promote fidelity and focus mostly on heterosexual reproduction, the appreciation of fertility, and ‘the wonder of life', as is the case in the cross-national program My fertility matters (2019) or teenSTAR, a NGO that was eventually banned from teaching at public schools in Austria due to its promotion of abstinence and conversion therapy in 2019 (teenSTAR Österreich, 2018; see also Tóth, 2018). It was only after a public media scandal that the ministry of education eventually released a nationwide directive in that case.

In addition to conservative and right-wing pressure groups, parental organizations regularly protest against federal initiatives to implement comprehensive sexuality education in Austria and Germany. In 2015, when the new decree on sexuality education was developed in Austria, persistent critique was formulated by parental organizations, fighting against a widening of state responsibility in matters of sexual health and education of children (Vasold, 2016).3 As in other countries such as the UK, the right of parents to remove their child from school for the duration of sex education classes has sometimes been a topic of discussion. As a consequence, some programs explicitly make parents a target group of sexuality education, acknowledging the importance of parents for children's sexual development.

Since 2015, the political shift to the right has had a noticeable influence on a renewed racialization of sexualities, also in the context of sex education. Reacting to a new demand for sexuality education for racial and ethnic minorities, many organizations are increasingly requested to offer intercultural sexuality education, leading to new research initiatives, and development of new sexuality education programs that target immigrants and/or refugees as well as translators. However, the othering of immigrants’ needs for sexuality education is sometimes further exacerbating the racialization of sexuality. The provision of intercultural sex education for ethnic and racial minorities is often limited to social values and risk prevention, while majority groups usually receive a holistic education aimed at sexual well-being. A critical engagement with racialized stereotypes of the majority population is usually not part of intercultural sex education (Rothmüller, 2019a). Working in Austria, Hammer and Ziegelwanger propose a value-pluralistic and rights-based approach to sex education in immigrant societies (Hammer and Ziegelwanger, 2012). In Germany, a first comprehensive anthology on sexuality and gender in immigrant societies has recently been published that discusses, among other topics, racism, homophobia, sexual violence, and sexuality education for young refugees (Sielert et al., 2017).

In Germany and Austria, there is a lack of awareness of inequalities and social analysis in sexuality education research and programs. Due to contestations from men's rights groups and conservatives discrediting holistic sex education, and the anticipated protests of parents, sex educators regularly restrict their perspective to uncontroversial topics like contraception, at the expense of LGBTIQ and other minorities’ needs. Nevertheless, some sex education organizations that offer workshops for school classes are developing new inclusive approaches. In Germany, NGOs like ABqueer e.V. or dissens e.V. develop material, offer workshops and training about gender and sexual diversity, and non-discriminatory or intersectional approaches to sex education. In Austria, for example, the NGO Selbstlaut developed an interactive exhibition that not only includes gender and sexual diversity as well as queer perspectives, but also features multi-sensual approaches and material created for and with people with learning difficulties, and for visually or hearing-impaired students (Axster and Aebi, 2018; Selbstlaut, 2013). The work of Selbstlaut is also significant as this small NGO combines sexuality-positive sex education with abuse and violence-prevention education and moves away from the focus on identity formation that is hegemonic in German sexuality education literature (e.g. Sielert, 2015).

Following the debates around the NGO teenSTAR, Catholic pressure groups successfully lobbied against comprehensive programs in 2019 in Austria (Plattform Sexuelle Bildung, 2019). During the government crisis in summer 2019, the former coalition partners ÖVP – Austrian People's Party (Conservatives) and FPÖ – Freedom Party of Austria (right-wing populists) voted for a ban on professional sex education organizations and experts from schools. Despite unprecedented public protest from, among others, Catholic and conservative organizations and professional sex education providers, in alliance with civil society organizations and opposition parties, and a broad social media campaign (#redmadrüber, that is, ‘let's talk about it'), the motion proposed by Catholic and conservative hardliners passed the board of education in June 2019, unexpectedly interrupting the process of quality assurance that had just been started by the former ministry of education in spring 2019 (Larcher et al., 2019; Rothmüller, 2019b; Sterkl, 2019).

Professionalization: Research, Further Education, and Teacher Training

In the academic field in Germany and Austria, sexuality education is often considered as a sub-discipline of educational science (Sielert, 2013). Admittedly, it is rarely institutionalized in academia; the same applies to sexuality studies. As described in the recently published Lived History of Sexuality Education (Schmidt et al., 2017: 175f.), the development and professionalization of sexuality education was initiated by engaged individual academics and practitioners. The only university degree currently offered in this field is a Master's Program in Applied Sexuality Studies with a focus on sexuality education and counseling, conducted by the University of Applied Science in Merseburg, Germany. However, the public debate on large and long-concealed cases of child and youth abuse in boarding schools, which emerged in Germany in 2010 (Thole et al., 2012), led to a national fund for research on child abuse prevention and the establishment of five tenure track professorships that were partly also dedicated to research on sex(uality) education.

Although minor in academia, in the professional field of education and care, sexuality education is seen as an important task for all pedagogic professionals, from elementary teachers to youth workers, school teachers, disability care workers, and social pedagogues, although they are often not trained accordingly. NGOs with expertise in sex education offer workshops, counseling, and training, and support educational organizations, e.g. institutions for people with disabilities, to develop sex education policies.

Sex education by professional sex educators in schools or youth centers is mostly limited to one or two workshops and orientated towards two main goals: (1) helping children and youth to develop a language to speak about their body, feelings, and sexuality, often through games and exercises, and (2) responding to participants’ questions concerning puberty and body issues as well as romantic and sexual relationships, most often based on anonymous questions.

Issues of currently increasing importance are the opportunities and challenges connected to media-related issues, e.g. the easy access to pornography, online dating, sexting, or cyber-bullying. Sex educators have been trying to use the mentioned public debates in recent years to argue against recurring moral panic around ‘the pornographization’ or ‘sexualization’ of youth. Instead, they campaign for comprehensive sex education that supports young people to understand and deal with media and its potential as well as its challenges. Studies show that pornography, although forbidden for those under the age of 18, is used as a source of information, especially by male adolescents. Sex educators stress the need to discuss media practices with students and support them e.g. to distinguish between fiction and reality, and to understand gender stereotypes and modes of commodification in porn (see Kostenwein, 2018). Döring (2011) argues in favor of developing a ‘pornography competence’ based on media education, critical thinking, pleasure, and self-reflection.

An examination of symposia and in-service education for pedagogical professionals in the last few years shows that media and sexuality appears to be the most discussed topic, highlighted by sex educators as well as by professionals in media education. Projects such as saferinternet.at, Medienwerkstatt Wupperthal, or Medienwerkstatt Wien offer counseling and develop up-to-date material on media and sexuality for young people and teachers.

Although there is a lack of research on school-based sex education, it can be said that sex education in schools is still of great importance for students (Depauli et al., 2016; BZgA, 2015). Generally speaking, sex educators from expert NGOs provide up-to-date professional but time-limited sex(uality) education (usually not more than 3–4 hours). Qualitative research conducted in the last few years shows that sex education provided by teachers tends to differ highly in quality and is often less progressive than the policies (Hoffmann, 2015; Blumenthal, 2014), which is not surprising due to the lack of teacher training regarding the topic (Valtl, 2016; Wrede and Hunfeld, 1997). Sex education is not a compulsory part of teacher training in Germany and Austria, and only a few universities and university colleges of teacher education offer sex education classes at all. Most offers for teachers in the field of sex education are part of further education programs, also called in-service training. In-service training on sex education organized by the university colleges of teacher education as well as NGOs range from half-day workshops to one-year modular courses. While courses offered by the colleges are free of charge and part of the teachers’ compulsory further training, all other courses and workshops need to be attended in the teachers’ free time and entail additional costs.

Thuswald (2019) conducted an ethnographic study in various teacher training workshops and courses on sex education.4 She concludes that all the courses and seminars are hands-on orientated, offer practical knowledge and carry out some sex education methods with the participating teachers. The main topics covered in the majority of the courses or workshops are: the anatomy of sexual organs, the psychosexual development of children, contraception (although safer sex is not a major topic), knowledge about young people's sexuality and relationship practices, professional self-reflection about the participants’ own sex education experience and sexual values, and methods of sex education (see Thuswald, 2019). Some of the topics perceived as ‘hot’ or difficult like pornography, masturbation, and homosexuality are mentioned in all training courses, while topics like abortion,5 homophobia, or the intersection between sexuality and race or class are often left out. While the courses and workshops thus provide similar professional knowledge on topics like contraception, pornography, or masturbation, they vary significantly due to their focus on social power relations and gender as well as sexual diversity (Thuswald, 2019).

In respect of professionalization, it is important to mention that sex education is not a legally protected profession in Germany and Austria. Sex educators often work as part-time freelancers under precarious working conditions. Organizations like the Society for Sexuality Education (Gesellschaft für Sexualpädagogik) in Germany, or the Platform Sexuality Education (Plattform Sexuelle Bildung) in Austria, provide networks for sexuality educators, and are advocating for professional standards and recognition.


The quantity of sex(uality) education can be considered unsatisfactory in the majority of countries in the world; holding true also for many countries that have implemented progressive sex education policies. Yet it is crucial to demand not only more but also higher-quality standards for sexuality education. Contemporary academic discourses in the field increasingly focus on issues that are located at the intersection of sexuality and other categories of inequality (Debus, 2016). One example is sexual rights of people with disabilities (Tuider, 2014); another example is the racialization of sexuality that significantly affects the sexual well-being of people that are perceived to be members of ethnic or racial minorities, as well as the provision of their sexuality education (Rothmüller, 2018, 2019b). Sexual inequalities are insufficiently addressed by conventional sex education approaches that aim solely at increasing the ability of individuals to make informed decisions. Often, they fail to account for the broader social and cultural conditions as well as the unequal distribution of financial, social, and cultural resources that enable or restrict sexual decision making (Fields et al., 2015; Rédai, 2019). Although the internet may have a huge influence, we suggest that it does not substitute but rather changes the role of sex education in schools. Sex education, however, can only be adequately implemented if it is based on a power-sensitive professional approach and is strengthened within teacher education. Quality assurance and professionalization, however, are threatened by political push-back from men's rights, anti-feminist, and fundamentalist pressure groups across the globe.


1 The guidance promotes e.g. the acceptance of masturbation (UNESCO, 2018: 71) and some information on the situation of LGBTI youth (2018: 24f.).

2 He shows how teachers in South African schools differentiate LGBT learners into ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ groups. On the one hand, the invisibility of LGBT youth negates the learners’ existence in their schools, and, on the other hand, a ‘supra-visibility’ of sexual minorities in schools emerges because of bullying and harassment. Both the positions of ‘visibility’ and ‘invisibility’ spur on the dominance of heterosexuality and heteronormativity and simultaneously downplay the need for educational reform.

3 In a recent Austrian case in 2018, a parental association in secondary education complained that the Viennese city council did not consult them before the start of a poster campaign against homo- and transphobia in schools, and thus claimed that parental rights to information had been violated (Elternverband, 2018).

4 The study is based on the observation of 10 different sex education workshops, seminars, and courses, following a grounded theory sampling strategy of maximal contrast. The sample includes short- and mid-term courses, seminars, and workshops offered by universities as well as by NGOs in urban and rural areas, and is conducted by trainers of different educational and institutional backgrounds.

5 Abortion is not legal but is exempt from punishment in Austria and in Germany within the first three months of pregnancy and later under specified circumstances (e.g. danger for the pregnant woman).

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