If you went to school years ago, a plain “hello” was enough to greet a friend. Now, high school students land a customary kiss and not always on the cheek.
The change in sexual attitudes and practices among the young bother not only parents but the United Nations too. In its February report, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urged Ukraine to confront its high rate of abortions by beefing up sex education and encouraging citizens to use contraceptives.
Government says the number of abortions fell from 31 to 6 per 1,000 women in the period 1993-2004 for girls in the 15-17 age groups. Nevertheless, the unwanted pregnancy rate, as well as the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, remain high and testify to insufficient preventive measures, according to the United Nations.
Many Ukrainian teachers agree that schoolchildren’s quest for sexual autonomy starts much earlier than a decade ago. “What stands out in my memory is a medical inspection in school among ninth graders [age 13-14] two years ago: None of the girls turned out to be a virgin,” said Yevhen Nelin, child psychologist and geography teacher at Kyiv School 307. “I was very surprised not because they all had sex, but because girls consciously think that it’s not cool to be a virgin in their age.”
Nelin said many children decide to grow up and explore intimacy when turning 13-14. The aggressive media environment and Internet imperturbably help them run against the grain of social and moral norms. “I think modern children can teach our teachers [about sex] now,” said Nelin.
Alarmed with the speed of sexual liberation among teenagers, the Education Ministry introduced a special course “Health Basics” in 2001. It runs from the first up to the ninth grade dealing with psychological and physical aspects of a child’s growth. Sexual education is a part of it, although the word “sexual” is avoided.
“We call it carnal relations, because in the state program there is no such term as sexual,” said Svitlana Fitsailo from the ministry. “Teaching biology in 1980s, I remember girls all moving to the back of the class and turning away in defiance. Now students are very interested in the subject.”
Already in second grade, kids learn about the dangers of the HIV virus. In the ninth grade, they go into more detail on reproductive health, methods of protection and STDs.
When the class was launched, only some 20 percent of parents supported it, recalled Fitsailo. Now, most parents applaud it, some because they don’t have to go into a blushing discussion with their offspring.
And yet the system is not ticking to plan, says the non-governmental organization Women Health and Family Planning Fund.
“Research shows that students don’t trust teachers,” said gynecologist Halyna Maistryuk who heads the Fund. “A lot of them think that intimate information can be used against them in the form of blackmail or it could be leaked to parents.”
Maistryuk refers to the 2008 findings from the Sexual Education survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Over 50 percent of teenagers polled said they considered doctors as the most reliable source of information about sex, followed by parents. Over one half considered asking friends for advice first, followed by parents. And only 4 percent said they would inquire with teacher about a classmate they like.
Maistryuk supports the Swedish model of sexual education which has been incorporated into the school curriculum since 1956. The subject is usually started between ages seven and 10 and continues up through the grades.
“Swedish experience shows that the more a child knows about it, the less desire he has to start it because he is aware about physical and moral risks,” said Maistryuk. “In Europe, where they have sexual education as a separate subject, they have the lowest rate of underage pregnancy. They show students how to use condoms. In Ukraine, however, they don’t teach any of it. But it’s a question of safety. It must be taught.”
The Education Ministry, however, insists that Health Basics, as well as elective courses on AIDS prevention, are enough. “Kids reach puberty very individually. There are different moral rules in the families. Therefore, making it a separate class for everyone is divisive,” argued Fitsailo.
Child psychologist Nelin thinks that parts of sexual education have to be revised but not revolutionized. “I have children between eight and 10 years old in the same class. They mature differently,” Nelin added.
However, most partakers in this sex education debate agree that parents have to get involved. Fitsailo says that mothers and fathers delegate the sex talk to schools. Maistryuk from the women’s health and family planning NGO says the Soviet mentality still makes parents in Ukraine explain birth to their children as a present from a stork.
“As you know, there was no sex in the Soviet Union, but we had the highest number of abortions in the world because there was no chance to do family planning, and not enough contraception methods. So we emerged as a country with double standards when one thing was declared and another one was followed,” Maistryuk added.
It seems that double standards are still in place. When even daytime television and billboards are full of sexually overt scenes, textbooks shun away from the word “sex.”