What is comprehensive sexuality education?

Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being, and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.

[Source: UNESCO. 2017. International technical guidance on sexuality education, pp.16-17.]

Depending on the country or region, CSE may go by other names. It may be referred to as ‘life skills’, ‘family life’, or ‘HIV’ education. It is sometimes called ‘holistic sexuality education’. It is important to confirm with ministries what they use to describe CSE, particularly as context-based terms can inform the most effective approach to take when partnering with and supporting these ministries.

CSE is:

  • delivered in formal and non-formal settings, in school or out of school;
  • scientifically accurate, based on research, facts, and evidence;
  • incremental, starting at an early age with foundational content and skills, with new information building upon previous learning, using a spiral-curriculum approach that returns to the same topics at a more advanced level each year;
  • age- and developmentally appropriate, with content and skills growing in abstractness and explicitness with the age and developmental level of the learners; it also must accommodate developmental diversity, adapting for learners with cognitive and emotional development differences;
  • curriculum-based, following a written curriculum that includes key teaching and learning objectives, and the delivery of clear content and skills in a structured way;
  • comprehensive, and about much more than just sexual behaviours.

The comprehensive aspect of CSE refers to the breadth, depth, and consistency of topics, as opposed to one-off lessons or interventions. CSE addresses sexual and reproductive health issues, including, but not limited to:

  • sexual and reproductive anatomy and physiology;
  • puberty and menstruation;
  • reproduction, contraception, pregnancy, and childbirth;
  • STIs, including HIV and AIDS.

CSE also addresses the psychological, social, and emotional issues relating to these topics, including those that may be challenging in some social and cultural contexts. It supports learners’ empowerment by improving their analytical, communication, and other life skills for health and well-being in relation to:

  • sexuality,
  • human rights,
  • a healthy and respectful family life and interpersonal relationships,
  • personal and shared values,
  • cultural and social norms,
  • gender equality,
  • non-discrimination,
  • sexual behaviour,
  • gender-based and other violence,
  • consent and bodily integrity,
  • sexual abuse and harmful practices such as child, early, and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation/cutting.

Key values of CSE

Human rights approach

CSE builds on and promotes universal human rights for all, including children and young people. It emphasizes all persons’ rights to health, education, information equality, and non-discrimination. It raises awareness among young people that they have their own rights, and that they must acknowledge and respect the rights of others, and advocate for those whose rights are violated.

Gender equality

Integrating a gender perspective throughout CSE curricula is integral to effective CSE programmes. CSE analyses how gender norms can influence inequality, and how inequality can affect the overall health and well-being of children and young people, as well as the efforts to prevent issues such as HIV, STIs, early and unintended pregnancies, and gender-based violence. CSE contributes to gender equality by building awareness of the centrality and diversity of gender in people’s lives; examining gender norms shaped by cultural, social and biological differences and similarities; and by encouraging the creation of respectful and equitable relationships based on empathy and understanding.

Culturally relevant and context-appropriate

CSE must be delivered in the context of the range of values, beliefs, and experiences that exist even within a single culture. It enables learners to examine, understand, and challenge the ways in which cultural structures, norms, and behaviours affect their choices and relationships within a variety of settings.

Transformative

CSE impacts whole cultures and communities, not simply individual learners. It can contribute to the development of a fair and compassionate society by empowering individuals and communities, promoting critical thinking skills, and strengthening young people’s sense of citizenship. It empowers young people to take responsibility for their own decisions and behaviours, and how they may affect others. It builds the skills and attitudes that enable young people to treat others with respect, acceptance, tolerance, and empathy, regardless of their ethnicity, race, social, economic, or immigration status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.

Developing self-efficacy

CSE teaches young people to reflect on the information around them in order to make informed decisions, communicate and negotiate effectively, and develop assertiveness rather than passivity or aggression. These skills foster the creation of respectful and healthy relationships with family members, peers, friends, and romantic or sexual partners.

[Source: UNESCO. 2017. International technical guidance on sexuality education, pp 16-17.]

Sexuality’ is defined as ‘a core dimension of being human which includes: the understanding of, and relationship to, the human body; emotional attachment and love; sex; gender; gender identity; sexual orientation; sexual intimacy; pleasure and reproduction. Sexuality is complex and includes biological, social, psychological, spiritual, religious, political, legal, historic, ethical and cultural dimensions that evolve over a lifespan’.

[Source: UNESCO. 2017. International technical guidance on sexuality education, p.17.]

The word ‘sexuality’ has different meanings in different languages and in different cultural contexts. Taking into account a number of variables and the diversity of meanings in different languages, the following aspects of sexuality need to be considered in the context of CSE:

  • Sexuality refers to the individual and social meanings of interpersonal and sexual relationships, in addition to biological aspects. It is a subjective experience and a part of the human need for both intimacy and privacy.
  • Simultaneously, sexuality is a social construct, most easily understood within the variability of beliefs, practices, behaviours and identities. ‘Sexuality is shaped at the level of individual practices and cultural values and norms’ (Weeks, 2011).
  • Sexuality is linked to power. The ultimate boundary of power is the possibility of controlling one’s own body. CSE can address the relationship between sexuality, gender and power, and its political and social dimensions. This is particularly appropriate for older learners.
  • The expectations that govern sexual behaviour differ widely across and within cultures. Certain behaviours are seen as acceptable and desirable, while others are considered unacceptable. This does not mean that these behaviours do not occur, or that they should be excluded from discussion within the context of sexuality education.
  • Sexuality is present throughout life, manifesting in different ways and interacting with physical, emotional and cognitive maturation. Education is a major tool for promoting sexual well-being and preparing children and young people for healthy and responsible relationships at the different stages of their lives.

[Source: UNESCO. 2017. International technical guidance on sexuality education, p. 17.]

Key conceptual elements of sexual health

When viewed holistically and positively: 

  • Sexual health is about well-being, not merely the absence of disease. 
  • Sexual health involves respect, safety and freedom from discrimination and violence. 
  • Sexual health depends on the fulfilment of certain human rights. 
  • Sexual health is relevant throughout the individual’s lifespan, not only to those in the reproductive years, but also to both the young and the elderly. 
  • Sexual health is expressed through diverse sexualities and forms of sexual expression. 
  • Sexual health is critically influenced by gender norms, roles, expectations and power dynamics.
  • Sexual health needs to be understood within specific social, economic and political contexts.