Whenever sex education is discussed, questions about its limits arise: What sexual practices, if any, are okay to talk about? What sexualities and gender identities should be represented and how? Can parents take their children out of Sex Ed classes that discuss issues that do not match their religious or cultural beliefs? What is lost amidst these discussions about what we don’t want young people to study is an awareness of what we do want them to know as they leave the classroom. When we step back from the restrictions of, and anxieties about Sex Ed, what values or ethics do we want young people to know about when they learn about sex?
“Ideology of the rainbow”
Towards the end of last year, the German state of Baden-Württemberg announced that it would include the topic of “sexual diversity” in its proposal for educational reform, due to be finalised sometime in 2015. Almost immediately, a petition was started by a teacher from Baden-Württemberg to counter the proposal, arguing against what it described as an “Ideologie des Regenbogens” – an ideology of the rainbow. The petition aimed to receive 100,000 signatures and near doubled its goal before closing at the end of January 2014. A petition to counter the original petition fell slightly short of its target of 100,000 supporters before closing in March 2014. A month later, the phrase “sexual diversity” had disappeared from the proposal for educational reform as a topic in its own right, and elsewhere in the proposal the much more vague wording of “education for tolerance and acceptance of diversity” (“Bildung für Toleranz und Akzeptanz von Vielfalt”) was introduced.
In Germany, there is no national school curriculum as issues relating to education are the responsibility of each of the 16 federal states. A 2004 report by the Federal Agency for Health Education (Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung, BZgA) analyses the various regulations regarding sex education in the 16 German states to compare and review its content, norms and methods. The report explains that sex education in the state of Baden-Württemberg is regulated by the Guidelines for Family and Sex Education (Richtlinien zur Familien- und Geschlechtserziehung). According to the BZgA, these guidelines, last reviewed in 2001, view sexuality as primarily an issue of procreation and are meant to prepare young pupils for marriage and family. “Homosexual partnerships” (“Homosexuelle Lebensgemeinschaften”) only appear as a point of discussion under the category “problem areas of sexuality” (“Problemfeld der Sexualität”), a section that is only taught in Catholic RE.
To give some context to British readers, sex and relationship education in the UK is compulsory from the age of 11 and focuses on three main topics: reproduction, sexuality and sexual health. The government website listing these learning goals immediately offers the statement that sex and relationship education “doesn’t promote early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation”. Only those parts of sex education that are taught in science classes are compulsory in UK schools whilst parents can withdraw their children from all other parts of sex education that take part outside of the science classroom. In an advice pamphlet from 2000 – the latest available from the official government website – homosexuality (or anything besides topics relating to heterosexual relations) is not mentioned, but a desire to tackle homophobic attacks is. A small section entitled “sexual identity and sexual orientation” advises teachers to allow for a discussion of sexual diversity, but, again, warns immediately against a “direct promotion of sexual orientation”.
Both the UK curriculum and Baden-Württemberg’s education guidelines clearly lack an emphasis on the multiplicity of sexual orientation. In light of this, the latter’s proposed inclusion of the topic of “sexual diversity” seems laudable. Such a subject, if done well, would promote the sexual health and safety of all young people, whether LGBTQI* or not, and help prevent homophobic and transphobic bullying or abuse by peers. However, the justification to include “sexual diversity” as an act of “tolerance” and “acceptance”, as it was once described in the proposal for educational reform, seems problematic. A terminology of welcome and acceptance always also includes an understanding of hierarchy between those who have the power to welcome in and those who have to wait for an invitation. To welcome someone means to allow someone into an existing structure that is already defined. As such, “sexual diversity”, despite being advertised in supposedly positive terms of acceptance, welcome and tolerance, can only ever function as an add-on to sex education, which will continue to be embedded in the basic goals of, as in the case of Baden-Württemberg, marriage, family and procreation. Accordingly, in a comment about the petition against the proposed changes, the website of the Department of Culture, Youth and Sports (Minister für Kultur, Jugend und Sport) confirms precisely this: it rejects as a gross exaggeration the petition’s accusation that an understanding of “sexual diversity” is supposed to be installed as a basic premise of sex education as a whole and reiterates that it was only ever meant as one discussion point amongst many.
Making a wish
What would sex education look like if sexual diversity were precisely not a topic that is simply added to an already existing curriculum? An acknowledgment of the diversity of human sex, gender and sexuality could be one of the foundations on which we develop the values of sexual intimacy that we want to see promoted in Sex Ed. Instead of adding subsections to already existing sex education curricula, might it not be more productive to reconsider the basic values or ethics of sexual intimacy that sex education is a practical result of? Many questions and worries about current Sex Ed are about how and what is taught, but rarely why we teach sex education at all. This is not to say that a theoretical discussion of the values of sexual intimacy should replace practical advice on contraception and sexual health in the classroom. These underlying values and ethics require a translation that makes them accessible to children and adolescents who may not be familiar with them or comfortable to talk about them. Any sex education curriculum based on these ethics would then still need to give accurate information about the spread of STIs or preventing unwanted pregnancy, but there would also need to be an ethics of intimacy out of which such practical steps can arise.
Such an ethics of intimacy is not confined to sexual intimacy alone but can extent to other levels of intimate relations, such as friendship, family or other forms of non-sexual relationships, too. Sexual contact is just one possible form of intimacy on a spectrum of many other possibilities of intimate relations. When I discuss the ethics of intimacy, therefore, I wish for them to be helpful not only as a premise for sex education, but as a foundation for various kinds of intimate relationships.
What ethics of intimacy could Sex Ed be built on? Here is my wish list.
A major point of controversy when it comes to sex education is the question of when to begin. At a public demonstration in support of the petition against the inclusion of the topic of “sexual diversity” in educational reform plans, protesters held signs declaring “Sex ist nicht für Kinder” – sex is not for children. This is striking, not only because it is not true – children (and by this I mean people before they reach adulthood, a definition which is closer to the meaning of the German word) above a certain age can legally consent to sexual contact in both Germany where the demonstration took place and in the UK where this is published. The fear parents and carers express of early “sexualisation” – essentially the reason for demanding “no sex for children” – shows their suspicion of early Sex Ed as an active prompt to have sex before they are of age. Yet most young people need no encouragement to develop a desire for sexual contact and an hour of awkward talk about condoms and birth canals is unlikely to replace or trump that sexual desire.
Assuming everyone with a stake in the sex education debate is concerned to protect young people from harm, the question becomes: what is harm in the context of sexual contact? And, more urgently, how can we prevent harm and offer protection? If we are genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of the children in our care, then we are already agreeing on one of the fundamental values of human coexistence: intimacy matters. Suppose that, instead of protecting young people from being intimate with others, we provide them with the tools to remain protected from harm whilst being intimate. Instead of avoiding harm by prohibiting any form of physical or emotional proximity with others, harm can be avoided by teaching someone the skills to treat another being with care.
Not only in the context of sexual contact, this emphasis on care for those we are intimate with is an issue of consent, a topic that has informed recent discussions of celebrity photos published without their knowledge, anti-rape nail polish, or instances of victim blaming. While sexual desire does not need teaching, the act of giving and respecting voluntary agreement to be intimate with another person does. Luckily, consent is an ageless topic and even – or especially – the smallest child can benefit from learning that, in any relationship, you define how intimate you want to be and you check with the other person(s) that they are happy with the level of intimacy, too. Provided that we learn to treat boys and girls with the same level of respect for bodily boundaries and agency, consent will not need to distinguish between the sex, gender or sexuality of one’s intimate partner(s). Rather, an emphasis on mutually agreeable intimate relations would encourage us to demand and make use of consent in all of our networks of intimacies, be they between spouses, siblings, peers, sexual partners or cohabitants. Instead of prohibiting certain forms of (sexual) intimacy, we encourage consensual intimacy, sexual or not.
In the context of sexual relations, this would mean to make sure that we check – and keep checking – that our partner(s) are happy with the level of sexual intimacy. This means that we become comfortable to ask such questions as: “Do you like this?” “Can I do this?” “Would you like to do this?” “How was it for you when we?” But asking is only half the job done, because we must also make sure to listen to their answers and take “no” as no. The same attitude towards consent can be applied to our non-sexual relationships with others, because to check if our friends and family are happy and well and to accept if they don’t want to spend time with us or be intimate with us – share their secrets, hug us, accept our offers of hospitality – is as important in non-sexual relationships as it is in those that are of a sexual nature. As such, rather than being terrified of early “sexualisation”, we will be terrified of a late teaching of consent. Instead of worrying about early sex education classes, we will hope that they will not take place too late.
Any Sex Ed class must also provide accurate information about sexual health, contraception and pregnancy. Of course it is essential to understand how bodies tend to work and which body parts have to be shielded to avoid the spreading of STIs or protect those capable of conceiving from unplanned pregnancy. Yet practices and processes in the context of sexuality are often presented as taking place under perfect conditions: the practice of putting on a condom, the biological processes of human gestation, of babies passing through birth canals. All of these are undeniably important processes and practices to think about. However, it is equally important to think about the cultural embedding of these mechanics that may render them impossible. Putting on a condom needs instructions, but the technical skills required are minimal. What takes much more work is to muster up the confidence to demand safe sex and contraception and to know that one has the right to ask for such things. If I have no confidence in myself as an agent of my own sexuality, no awareness of my right to request contraception, protection and consent, knowledge of practices and processes are not going to get me very far. What we urgently need, in addition to being told that it is best to know where the nearest STI clinic is and how to roll on a condom on an erect penis, is to have the confidence to go to an STI clinic and the courage to walk into a shop and buy a supply of condoms. Knowledge of human biology is good, but it is not effective without an understanding of the social pressures that often stand in the way of people’s agency in their various relations of intimacy.
To become confident to express our desire to be intimate with another person means that we also acknowledge our right to be annoyed, unhappy, unsatisfied and frustrated. When we become intimate with another person, whether friend, family or lover, we open ourselves up to them. From such a position of proximity we can also be hurt or irritated, feel frustrated when our offer of intimacy is not returned, have doubts about our relations with others. Yet such issues are part of any friendship or partnership, which prove their strength precisely in the acknowledgment of irritation and unhappiness as difficulties that can be accepted and dealt with together. To have confidence in our intimate relations means to not feel pressured to feel well and happy all the time, but to acknowledge frustration, doubt, irritation, and related emotions as part of any intimate relation.
Can confidence be taught? To handle our own relations of intimacy confidently is difficult also because we see so few people who manage it. A first step towards installing confidence might be as easy as creating a space in which discussions can take place with specially-trained Sex Ed teachers. Such teachers would give the students an opportunity to learn from the confidence and openness the teachers model toward topics of a sexual nature.
Enabling everyone to be confident in their own practices of intimacy sounds as if I wish for kids to be free from sexual anxiety, anticipation, shame, or regret. This is, of course, utopian. Few teenagers (and perhaps even fewer adults) can say of themselves that they are free from anxiety but full of confidence. This may come after years of experience of good practice, but an ethics of intimacy that assumes all agents are confident and without fear is one that was not made for us angsty humans.
But there is something that makes intimacy bearable without years of experience: the acknowledgment that, in the moment of intimacy, we all expose ourselves to vulnerability. This means that instead of working hard to let go of our anxieties and perceived shortcomings, we accept them and open up to them. In her TED talk on The power of vulnerability, research professor and public speaker Brené Brown argues that those people who have a strong sense of love and belonging are also the ones who do not deny their own vulnerability: according to her talk, they have courage to be imperfect, compassion to be kind to themselves and others, and can connect as a result of authenticity, of letting go of who they think they should be.
According to Brown, in order to be intimate with others we should not turn away from our vulnerability but towards it. Yet, traditionally, this term has rather negative connotations of weakness and lack of power. Such vulnerability is then also differently distributed across genders. Especially femininity is linked to an understanding of vulnerability as powerlessness, submissiveness and fragility, while masculinity is often positively associated with power and authority due to an absence of vulnerability. In order to create equal partners in our various forms of intimacies, we must work towards letting go of our understanding of vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Whether we identify as masculine or feminine (or both; or neither), we can admit to our mutual ability to be affected by another person as we enter into intimate relations. Intimacy here is then no longer a sign for the lack of power or inability to take charge, but an acknowledgment of a desirable openness towards each other. Instead of exhausting ourselves in trying to be free from anxiety, we can connect with others on the basis of our shared vulnerability.
Another provocative banner appeared at the demonstration against the inclusion of “sexual diversity” in Baden-Württemberg’s educational proposal, demanding “Keine Perversion” – no perversions. The banner once again expresses a sense of fear, this time the fear that, when anything goes, harm will be done. Yet, to have the confidence to agree to various levels of consensual intimacy is driven by precisely the same desire to avoid harmful practices. Allowing all conceivable forms of sexual practice to take place becomes dangerous only when such practices are removed from a context of responsibility.
To put no limit on the variety of sexual practices is not an argument for individual self-fulfilment at all costs nor a matter of a sexual free-for-all. Feminist scholar and political theorist Tove Soiland expresses her worries about precisely this ‘relentless imperative to optimise one’s experience of lust’. According to Soiland, ‘enjoyment has become a paramount social duty’. By pointing out the danger that sexual gratification may become a personal duty and its constant improvement an imperative that we impose upon ourselves, she also points out that sex is in danger of becoming all about individual self-fulfilment, not mutual desire. As such, we have to make sure that the pursuit of our own lust does not outdo our responsibility for those whom we lust after. To focus on consensual intimacy means to embed sexual lust in a context of responsibility for our intimate partners that renders both compulsory kink and sexual prohibition harmful.
Placing “Sexual diversity”
How would the topic of “sexual diversity” fit into the discussion of educational reform if the ethics of intimacy were based on a wish for consent, agency, vulnerability and responsibility? As neither the sex, gender or sexuality of a person would alter the relevance of these intimacy ethics, we could do away with a patronising vocabulary of “welcome” or “acceptance” employed by the Baden-Württemberg proposal and others similar to it. It would be nonsensical to “accept” LGBTQI* persons, because all forms of intimacy would be included right from the beginning. An ethics of intimacy that encourages consensual intimate relations in which all people connect through a mutual understanding of vulnerability offers a chance to do away with this hierarchy, because these ethics apply to all, whether heterosexual or not. Just as we will no longer be able to apply a vocabulary of “welcoming in”, we would also be unable to shut out non-heterosexual practices from the Sex Ed classroom. When this becomes the premise that sex education is founded on, it will not be possible to prioritise certain forms of intimacy – say, heterosexuality – over everything else. To do so would become a sign for the forceful reproduction of an ideology, which is, in a final twist, precisely the thing opponents of “sexual diversity” accuse the “ideology of the rainbow” of.
My wish list is not exhaustive. Many of the ideas I presented above are not new and, as practical instructions for Sex Ed curricula, they are useless; simply reading out the ethical ideals of intimacy I put forward is not going to be very effective. They require filtering down by qualified teachers. They will also only be effective if the burden of teaching them is shared. Issues of consent, confidence, vulnerability and responsibility do not cease to be relevant once pupils step outside Sex Ed classes. These wishes for an ethics of intimacy are as much a question of sex as they are of gender equality and politics. It can be seen here how ineffective and misplaced they will be if they remain confined to the science class. Instead, these ethics of intimacy require continuing discussions that take place in communities that base themselves on vulnerability, intimacy and consent and are willing to talk openly about these issues.
 In Germany, the age of consent is 14, but additional regulations apply to protect minors against abuse. In the UK, the age of consent is 16 with additional regulations to protect minors against abuse. Both countries’ regulations are the same regardless of the gender and sexuality of sexual partners.
 Tove Soiland, “Jenseits von Sex Und Gender : Die Sexuelle Differenz – Zeitdiagnostische Interventionen von Seiten Der Psychoanalyse,” in Die Zukunft von Gender: Begriffe und Zeitdiagnose, ed. by Anne Fleig (Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2014), pp. 97–125 (p. 111). My translation.