Sex education is an understudied field of research. While Finland and other Nordic countries have an excellent reputation for their sex education programmes, several contemporary challenges offer opportunities for further improvement.
Finland takes pride in its comprehensive approach to sex education, and its programmes have been recognised as some of the most liberal and successful in the world. But several challenges are affecting the way young people learn about sex and relationships. Only by understanding and addressing these can further improvements be achieved.
A brief history: sex education has been a part of the Finnish school curriculum since the 1970s. Today, health education is a compulsory subject, with sex education as one of its components. Most topics are covered when students are 13 to 15 years old. While the curriculum is developed on a national level, individual municipalities and schools have a great degree of autonomy, leading to the involvement of a number of different actors in the provision of sex education, including teachers, healthcare professionals, and NGOs.
The hidden curriculum
Education is never a politically neutral ground, and this is particularly clear in the case of sex education. On page 1 of their 2007 book Get Real about Sex: The Politics and Practice of Sex Education, Pam Alldred and Miriam E. David explain that “sex education is political in two respects: it invokes party political conflicts over policy, and, in the wider sense, it reinforces particular meanings and power relations”. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the way topics are presented may, consciously or unconsciously, carry morally charged messages about what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’.
Another important consideration is offered by Nancy Kendall, who in her 2012 book The Sex Education Debates explains that while policy debates focus on formal curriculum content, young people in schools are significantly exposed to what she describes as the ‘hidden sex education curriculum’. She explains that this includes “speech, norms, and practices in all of the students’ classrooms, school cafeterias, locker rooms, dances, nurse’s offices, libraries, principals’ offices, and so forth” (p. 12). Power dynamics related to gender and sexual orientation exist in schools, as they exist in society, regardless of whether they are talked about or not. As a result, young people are constantly receiving information about sexuality and gender. Hence, education systems are responsible for complementing this informal, uncontrolled, and potentially problematic learning, with accurate and comprehensive sex education lessons.
The gender gap in learning
PISA results from 2018 indicate a gender gap in academic performance in Finland, with girls generally scoring higher than boys. This trend extends to learning in health education: girls, on average, have more positive perceptions of their own learning in health education, and also more accurate knowledge about sex, as found by Osmo Kontula. Some interesting results appear in Kontula’s study:
The difference in scores between boys and girls was not merely a reflection of boys generally performing worse in school: boys scored lower in sexual knowledge tests even when accounting for general academic achievement;
For boys, the number of hours of sex education lessons attended was a greater predictor of higher sexual knowledge scores.
Kontula considers several possible explanations for poorer sexual knowledge among boys. One reason that appears in the literature is simply that the content of sex education is mainly concerned with female biology. He also refers to boys experiencing puberty later relative to girls, boys receiving less informal sex education in the family environment, and boys not wanting to reveal their true knowledge. Investigating this question further could shed light on the reasons behind these trends and improve practice in a way that allows all students to benefit from sex education.
In 2014, the topic of sexual diversity was introduced in the National Core Curriculum. In the context of Finnish equity, students of all genders and sexual orientations should benefit equally from sex education lessons. Research suggests, however, that a number of factors may be opposing this in practice. LGBT+ individuals may be underrepresented in school contexts. In her 2018 article Culture and sexuality in Finnish health education textbooks, Veronika Honkasalo explains that educational resources almost exclusively represent heterosexual couples, with the exception of sections explicitly concerned with sexual orientation. Stine H. B. Svendsen, in her chapter The Cultural Politics of Sex Education in the Nordics, points out that “the conception of ‘natural sex’ and the pivotal position of reproductive sex practices in sex education do not seem to have been disturbed by […] the acknowledgement of the significance of same sex practices and identities” (p. 144). The heterosexual discourse appears to be the prevailing rhetoric. According to University of Helsinki researchers Kristiina Brunila and Arto Kallioniemi, heteronormativity is part of daily practice in schools, reproduced by norms that are deeply ingrained in the learning environment, an issue which has also been addressed in the international literature.
Research findings suggest that teachers do not rank learning about pleasure as a top educational aim of sex education. However, if the perspective of pleasure is not taken into account when teaching students about sex, it is only to be expected that non-heterosexual sex will be portrayed as ‘other’, due to its inherent divergence from mere reproductive ends. Ultimately, there is no neutral way of teaching sex education, and further attention should be paid to avoiding heteronormative messages that contribute to bullying, leave no space for gender expression beyond the binary, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.
Another problematic issue in contemporary Finnish sex education raised by Honkasalo relates to representations of cultural diversity in health education textbooks. She found that examples of other, non-Finnish cultures are employed “to demonstrate the uniqueness of liberal, emancipated and progressive ‘Finnish’ sexuality” (p. 541). She argues that school textbooks are among the many artefacts that contribute to the process of nation-building through the creation of national narratives, and health education is no exception in this pattern. There is an assumption, in textbooks, that Finnish sexuality is the standard for ‘normal’ sexuality. Svendsen summarises the political implication of this tendency: “in the last decade of the twentieth century, sexuality again became a primary ‘optic’ through which the difference and foreignness of Muslims in Europe was understood” (p. 138). The resulting uncritical pride in liberal standards implies a lack of reflective approaches in relation to Finnish society and can further the othering of non-Finnish cultures.
Insights for future work
This overview covered only some of the important challenges facing sex education in Finland today, revealing the need for further research and development in the field of sex education. Researchers are proposing ways to improve practice. In the classroom, Kontula notes that utilising participatory pedagogical methods such as drama, and providing free condoms and other samples for students, are among the practices that correlate with better scores in tests of sexual knowledge. Brunila and Kallioniemi emphasise the importance of improving equality work in teacher education and of continued research into power relations in schools. Honkasalo advocates for democratisation, promoting student participation and the expression of students' own views both in research and school practices. She argues that it would not be enough to simply diversify the information provided in textbooks; instead, “teaching methods require to be democratised and made more inclusive in line with the demands of a modern and increasingly heterogeneous Finnish society” (p. 551). Furthering research into this understudied subject will allow for improved outcomes and greater inclusivity, both in terms of LGBT+ representation and cultural understanding.
Aira, T., Välimaa, R., Paakkari, L., Villberg, J., and Kannas, L. (2014). Finnish pupils’ perceptions of health education as a school subject. Global Health Promotion, 21(3), 6-18. https://doi.org/10.1177/1757975914523481
Alldred, P., and David, M. E. (2007). Get Real about Sex: The Politics and Practice of Sex Education. Open University Press.
Brunila, K., and Kallioniemi, A. (2017). Equality work in teacher education in Finland. Policy Futures in Education, 16(5), 539-552. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478210317725674
Honkasalo, V. (2018). Culture and sexuality in Finnish health education textbooks. Sex Education, 18(5), 541-554. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2018.1437030
Kendall, N. (2012). The Sex Education Debates. University of Chicago Press.
Kontula, O. (2010). The evolution of sex education and students’ sexual knowledge in Finland in the 2000s. Sex Education, 10(4), 373-386.
OECD (2019). Finland - Country Note - PISA 2018 Results. Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Available at: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_FIN.pdf
Svendsen, S. H. B. (2016). The Cultural Politics of Sex Education in the Nordics. In L. Allen and M. L. Rasmussen (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Sexuality Education. Springer Nature.
Anita Mezza is a student in the Changing Education master’s programme at the University of Helsinki. Her main research interests are the philosophy and sociology of education, as well as educational policy.