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'The topic is still taboo': Italy's lack of sexual education in school

condoms Copyright Michael Conroy/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Copyright Michael Conroy/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
By Samuele Damilano
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Italy is one of the last member states in the European Union where sex education is not mandatory in schools: "The main problem is ignorance, in the etymological sense of the word".


Italy is one of the last European Union member states where sex education is not mandatory in schools and several students say this has translated into a lack of sexual and emotional awareness.

"I have never received any sex education classes. In Italy the topic is still taboo," said 17-year-old Beatrice who is a student in the Lazio region that surrounds Rome.

"Teachers do not talk with us about this topic, they try to avoid it even where there is a clear connection to the lesson," Alice, aged 16, echoes her.

While several bills have been proposed over the years to introduce sex education, none of them has been successful.

Instead, sex education is left to the country's regions, which can decide whether to allocate funds to set up courses on sexuality in schools, often taught by medical personnel, nurses, midwives, or biologists.

Negative consequences

While there is no scientific research in Italy on the consequences of a lack of sex education, there is data that can give clues about the state of young people's awareness about sex.

For instance, Italy ranks 26th out of 45 in Europe in access to contraception, with rates far behind France and Great Britain.

"Despite an increased use of modern methods (especially the pill and condoms), it cannot yet be said that the contraceptive revolution, understood as a transition toward a diffusion of modern and effective methods, has been definitively accomplished in Italy," wrote Italy's Institute of Statistics two years ago.

It found that rather the withdrawal method was used 20 per cent of the time as a contraceptive method, despite being less effective.

Around 80 per cent of 16,000 Italian adolescents questioned turned to the internet for information about reproduction, according to a national fertility study, conducted by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità. 

"In view of (my) first experiences I believe and feel that I need a sex education class, but so far I have never received it," says another Italian adolescent in the Lazio region, Claudia, who is 15.

"It is thought that educating girls and boys at our age is too early, while it is precisely now that we need it most. Many of my friends had negative experiences during their first time."

Marina Marceca, a gynaecologist at San Filippo Neri Hospital in Rome, says she tried to introduce sex education classes at her daughter's high school but "there was no way."

"Talking about certain issues, according to the faculty and some parents might have offended the sensibilities of kids who profess religious beliefs," she said.

She works often as a volunteer to teach sex education classes regarding body changes, personal hygiene, contraception, and information about unwanted pregnancies.


"I've never had the perception of a rejectionist attitude; the kids have always shown themselves to be curious and predisposed to learn, the more so as the age is young."

For Marceca, the most negative repercussions of a gap in sex education concern the social and relational aspects of sexuality, with a lack of awareness of differences in sexual orientation, gender identity, and respect for others at the root of discrimination and violence in relationships.

Italian paradox

Three activists recently launched a petition which has garnered nearly 35,000 signatures, for mandatory sex, affective and gender equality education courses in Rome's high schools.

"Inequality between men and women, femicides, and homophobia are all problems related to poor culture and awareness, which can only be done in schools," says Flavia Restivo, one of the women who started the petition.


"I think the main reason that hinders the establishment of these courses in schools is the cumbersome presence of the Catholic Church within our society. Sexuality is seen as a dirty thing, something to be ashamed of, just think of the fact that we have religion class and classes with crucifixes."

Actor Pietro Turano who is also a spokesperson for Gay Centre and host of the podcast “Eclissi” agrees: "The Catholic sense of modesty plays a notable role in the aura of shame and reticence that surrounds the sexual-affective sphere."

"One of the most evident paradoxes in Italian society consists in the contrast between the continuous diffusion of sexual and sexualising stimuli, and the difficulty of talking freely and uninhibitedly about a need that unites us all."

He says that sex education needs to be discussed in a broader context to address discrimination, homophobia, and gender-based violence.


"It would be useless to do sex education by talking only about contraception and pregnancy: these are fundamental elements, technical tools that, however, must be used within a broader context, in which discrimination, homophobia and gender-based violence are still perpetrated."

Maximiliano Ulivieri, who runs an organisation that trains workers to help people with disabilities experience sexuality, says that the main problem is ignorance.

"We need communication that is not limited to contraception and the physical part of sex, but that explains how to accept bodies, to understand that they have a desire regardless of their form. Here, in this sense, sex education is fundamental."

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