Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees
Vanessa Acosta Ruiz had lived in several European countries by the time her family moved to Sweden when she was 12. A veteran at adapting to new schools, she was nevertheless surprised at Sweden's frank approach to sex education. "In every other school I had attended, it was very taboo to talk about sex," she recalls. Now here was the teacher talking condoms and penises.
Currently a 19-year-old premed student at Uppsala University in Sweden, Ruiz says the initial shock wore off, the nervous laughter subsided, and-more important-the students learned at an early age to take knowledgeable control of their sex lives. "If it wasn't for those classes," she says, "I wouldn't have such a positive and open view of sex."
Since 1956, sex education has been compulsory in Swedish schools, from the earliest grades through high school. Sex is a natural human act, the educators reason, and most people become active before they're 20. Since there is no changing that, the Swedes figure, young people should at least understand sexuality and reproduction, as well as the risks of unprotected sex. "The idea is that no one gets hurt, and no one is having unwanted children," says Swedish sociologist Bo Lewin.
Teen pregnancy. The curriculum starts out clinically at around age 6, when children learn about anatomy, eggs, and sperm. From age 12 on, the topics lean more toward disease and contraception. The classes have a moral dimension, as well: Sex within loving relationships is stressed, as is gender equality.
The message seems to work: The rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in Sweden are among the world's lowest. Sweden's teenage birthrate is 7 per 1,000 births, compared with 49 in the United States. Among 15-to-19-year-olds, reported cases of gonorrhea in the United States are nearly 600 times as great on a per capita basis.
American critics of sex education fear that teaching children about sex and contraception encourages promiscuity. But the percentage of girls having sex before age 15 is 12 percent in Sweden and 14 percent in the States. The Swedish classes urge students to wait until they feel mature. "When to have sex was up to me," says Ruiz. "That's what they told us in class."
To further the message beyond the schoolroom, there are Youth Clinics in most cities, staffed by specially trained nurses who dispense advice and low-cost contraceptives. Once the teens understand what's at risk, they're given the tools to behave responsibly.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.