Denmark’s “sex week” helps kids navigate their sexuality

Now in its 11th year, some 400,000 children participated in "sex week" this year

A teacher and student smiling

When you think back to sex education at school, what do you remember? A frank exploration of the intricacies of desire, consent and sexuality? Or a profoundly awkward hour in which neither you nor your teacher wanted to be there?

For many of us, it was the latter — if our curriculum even covered the topic. But a mounting body of evidence suggests that comprehensive sexual education (CSE) — a curriculum of rights-based and gender-focused approaches to sexuality including information on contraception, reproduction and sexually transmitted infections — is linked to improved sexual and reproductive health, reduced rates of sexually transmitted infection, and less teen pregnancy.

In some countries, sex education is improving: last week, Britain rewrote its sexual and relationships education curriculum for the first time in almost 20 years. But elsewhere, it remains taboo: in the US, only 24 states mandate sex education, with many opting for abstinence-based teaching rather than the full CSE advocated by some 150 medical bodies and civil society groups.

Denmark’s sex education curriculum is among the most progressive in the world, so much so that the sixth week of the school year is dedicated entirely to all things sex and relationships. ‘Sex week’ — a play on the Danish homonym for ‘six’ and ‘sex’ — is now a national phenomenon, providing progressive and ambitious sex education to hundreds of thousands of Danish young people.

But where did it start? And should other countries’ schools follow the Danish lead?

Sex week

The sex week campaign is run by Sex & Samfund (Sex & Society), a non-profit dedicated to improving sex education in Denmark.

It began 11 years ago as a week of programming dedicated to all aspects of sex and sexuality, tailored to different ages. Each year has a distinct theme, the most recent being “boundaries” — an in-depth exploration of digital safety, sexting, the sharing of sexual images and consent.

Comprehensive sex education is mandatory in Danish law, but Sex Week isn’t. That hasn’t hindered its popularity, however. The most recent sex week reached over 20,000 teachers and around 400,000 pupils — around two-thirds of all school-age children in Denmark.

“The political environment means we have a great framework for sex education,” said Lene Stavngaard, national director at Sex & Samfund, who cited support from politicians and a progressive sexual culture in the country as important factors in making CSE so widespread.

One particular strength of the framework, she argued, was its focus on competencies, rather than specific topics.

Danish children aren’t just expected to know about specific topics like consent, or reproductive biology, for example. Instead, they are expected to be able to understand and express themselves against much broader competencies, such as analysing gender norms, sexual rights, and different countries’ laws regarding sex.

Sex week doesn’t stop at the school gates, either. Each year also includes tasks for parents to learn how to talk about sex with their kids. This year, the challenge encouraged parents to talk to their kids about nude image sharing and online safety in six itemised conversations.

“If you don’t open space for discussions of nude image sharing online at home, and if as a parent you’re signalling [that] we can’t talk about this, then the child will feel ashamed and think it’s their own fault,” said Stavngaard.

But Stavngaard emphasised that sex week is just a way to top-up and reinforce sex education that runs throughout Danish schooling, both in stand-alone sex education lessons, and integrated into other subjects, such as biology and physical education.

Policy and practice

Stavngaard was keen to temper any notion that Denmark has entirely cracked sex education, despite its many successes.

“Denmark is often cited as a good example of sex education, but there was a recent evaluation on how sex is conducted in schools and it seems that often it’s not done very well,” she said. “Teachers aren’t always doing it and teachers don’t always have skills they require to do it well.”

That’s not a unique problem. Sweden’s sex education curriculum is often cited as an example of best practice by international researchers, but one study found that 96% of students felt sexual assault wasn’t adequately covered.

The problem is partly a skills gap that exists in teacher training curricula, said Stavngaard.

“It’s mandatory for teachers to teach sex education, but it’s not mandatory for them to learn,” she said, arguing that including CSE in teacher training courses would do much to improve the implementation of ambitious laws.

A second factor behind the gap between national policy and on-the-ground implementation is that some school heads support CSE more strongly than others. Stavngaard recommended that every principal set out a clear plan for the delivery of sex in their schools.

But she also argued that schools alone aren’t enough to ensure young people receive the CSE they need. Parents need to be engaged, and NGOs can enhance sex ed from the outside, both in providing up-to-date resource banks for educators, or by coming in and hosting lessons.

“There are some things that are better coming from external people rather than your maths teacher,” said Stavngaard. Sexual pleasure, for example, might be better coming from an external voice. “It’s good to have a broad palette in how you deliver CSE in schools.”

The lesson from the Danish experience in Stavngaard’s eyes is clear.

“It’s not enough just to have knowledge,” she said. “Young people need to be empowered, and feel that they can make good decisions.” — Edward Siddons

(Picture credit: Flickr/NEC Corporation of America)

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