A new sex education in schools?


In March 2024, the Higher Council for Programs published a draft program for sex education from kindergarten to high school. Entitled “Education for emotional, relational life and sexuality”, it takes up certain “key ideas” from a report published in 2021 , highlighting the weaknesses of sex education in schools.

The challenges of this education are numerous. These include contributing to the prevention of sexist or sexual violence , raising awareness among students of the forms of harassment or control that may be associated with them, and fighting against all discrimination based on sex, gender or sexual orientation.

The program is organized around three questions that are followed and explored throughout the schooling: how to live and grow, serenely with one’s body? How to build respectful relationships with others and flourish in them? How to find one’s place in society, and become a free and responsible person?

The stakes are enormous even if they are not new, especially if we base ourselves on the conclusion of the latest report of the High Council for Equality published in January 2024: sexism is not declining, quite the contrary, just like homophobia or transphobia . Furthermore, according to the Ministry of Justice , nearly one in two cases of rape and sexual assault on minors handled by public prosecutors in 2020 involved a minor as the perpetrator.

There is therefore an urgent need to develop an education that allows everyone to evolve in a society that guarantees respect for students, their physical and psychological privacy, their rate of growth and development, their differences and their singularities; equality of consideration and dignity; vigilance with regard to all discrimination based on sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

Sex education: a long gestation and a legal obligation since 2001

Sex education is not new, however it has taken on different forms depending on the era and context. The term appeared at the beginning of the 20th century  . Three categories of people then invested in this field: doctors who wanted to prevent venereal diseases, priests anxious to stop the disclosure of contraceptive methods and feminists, in the concern to protect girls and women against seduction, rape and abortion. The discourse on sex education was then placed under the influence of traditional morality by continuing to advocate sexual abstinence for adolescents.

The Langevin-Wallon plan , a vast plan to reform national education implemented at the Liberation, envisaged the introduction of sex education in schools, but it was reduced to biological information in order to standardize practices. The objective was then in particular “to avoid perversions, repressions and homosexuality”. Although France was one of the first countries to abolish the offences punishing homosexuality in 1791, the Vichy regime re-established them in 1942 and it was not until 1982 that homosexuality was decriminalized with the Forni law .

It was not until 1973 that the Fontanet circular officially specified the content of sex education . It was then essentially a question of channeling the excesses of a youth perceived as lost since the Neuwirth law which legalized contraception in 1967.

The introduction of this circular provoked lively debates, particularly in the press. While no one opposed information on sexuality, the question of sex education remained unresolved. Moreover, the latter, in the 1973 circular, remained optional. Sex education remained above all a family affair.

The 1980s were strongly marked by the appearance of AIDS, but it was not until 1998 that a circular entitled “Sexuality education and AIDS prevention” appeared , and the Aubry law of July 4, 2001 made sexuality education in schools a legal obligation.

From now on, information and education on sexuality must be provided in primary, secondary and high schools at a rate of at least three sessions per year and per homogeneous age group. However, due to the lack of resources to implement it, they are provided unevenly across the country.

Content that causes debate

The content of sex education evolves with the times. The 1998 circular generalizes actions on the prevention of risks linked to AIDS but these still often adopt a moral turn grafted onto the biology course.

Several remarks can be made here: if it is a question of understanding, for example, that there can be “varied sexual behaviors”, the circular does not mention homosexuality or bisexuality, for example. In the same way, if the circular indicates that it is necessary to develop “critical thinking with regard to stereotypes by leading students in particular to work on idealized, irrational and sexist representations”, the circular does not explicitly mention pornography or the image of women often degraded in the media.

The fight against homophobia is also not explicitly expressed, even though homosexuality was decriminalized on August 4, 1982, and homosexuality was removed from the WHO list of mental illnesses in 1991. The 1998 circular, however, specifies that it is about learning to “analyze the relationship with others in its personal and social components, based on precise knowledge of each sex,” which ultimately contributes “to the construction of the individual.” Despite the existence of this circular, sex education in schools does not seem to be very developed.

In 2013, a program to specifically combat gender stereotypes in schools was set up: the ABCD of Equality , aimed at providing information on equality between men and women, combating sexist prejudices and combating violence against women, as well as violence committed within couples. Very quickly, a motley group opposed it , orchestrated by reactionary Catholics seeking a new crusade after the adoption of marriage for all (2013), and far-right activists. At the end of the school year, despite an encouraging assessment, the program was abandoned and replaced by another system.

Towards new programs

Sex education in schools, as we know it today, is now based on the 2018 circular entitled “Sex Education” . Twenty years have passed between the 1998 circular and the 2018 circular.

It is a “transversal and progressive educational approach, which aims to promote self-esteem, respect for oneself and others, acceptance of differences, understanding and respect for the law and human rights, individual and collective responsibility, the construction of the person and the education of the citizen”. Its global and positive approach must be adapted to each age and each level of education.

Sex education is thus placed at the intersection of several fields:

  • the biological field , which includes everything related to anatomy, physiology, reproduction and what follows from it, in terms of contraception, prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV-AIDS;
  • the psycho-emotional field, which allows us to address the issue of self-esteem, psychosocial skills, interpersonal relationships, emotions and feelings, and thus invite young people to develop their own thinking and to interact with their peers, while respecting their private sphere;
  • the legal and social field , which aims to raise awareness among students about societal issues, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the misuse of digital tools and social networks, the risks associated with exposure to pornographic images, sexual exploitation, sexist and sexual violence, gender equality, etc. The aim is to combat prejudices, particularly those conveyed in the media and on social networks that cause discrimination, stigmatization and violence.

The new draft program is not revolutionary but takes up these themes by developing them and specifies how the different lessons can be linked to them. Since the legal obligation of 2001 to provide three annual sessions per level, it is also specified that all teachers (and not only SVT or civic and moral education teachers) must take up these themes.

This teaching, which has evolved considerably over the course of history, is now on the verge of playing a global role in school life by linking previously separate fields. It includes in a mastered training the values ​​that the school of the Republic is supposed to convey, but anchored in the reality experienced by children or adolescents, also taking into account the imperative of deconstruction that is imposed today, at the level of sexuality, by the influence of digital social networks.

It is therefore the culmination and keystone of an entire conception of secularism and of school as the education of the individual and the citizen. Only knowledge can, in fact, allow the individual to free himself from prejudices likely to lead to excesses such as homophobia, transphobia and any form of sexism or violence of a sexual nature. It would therefore be a shame if ideological controversies prevented the concrete implementation of this project because the values ​​defended here should transcend, in a state of law, all political oppositions.

Author Bio: Veronique Poutrain is a Researcher at the TELEMMe laboratory at Aix-Marseille University (AMU)