School as a Battlefield: The Debate on Sexuality Education in Ukraine

Sex Education, a three-season Netflix series in which the teenage son of a sex therapist mother sets up an underground sex therapy clinic at his school, has been a resounding hit among audiences of various age groups across the globe, and Ukraine is no exception. Ukrainian teenagers and many of their parents seemed to appreciate following the on-screen adventures of diverse characters dealing with their sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, teenage pregnancies, STDs, gender-based violence, female orgasms, coming outs, asexuality, sex lives of people with disabilities, and so on. While the characters’ problems were avidly discussed by viewers of different ages on social media, would it be realistic to expect an open discussion of the above-mentioned topics in a typical Ukrainian classroom?

chalk in every color of the rainbow

Sexuality education in post-Euromaidan Ukraine

Now, in 2021, sexuality education in Ukraine has not changed very much since I was a teenager, more than twenty years ago. Teaching classes on sexuality and sexual practices has usually been the responsibility of biology teachers (or occasionally other teachers who volunteer to do so), who teach a 40-minute lesson dedicated to the subject in the ninth grade (students are typically 14 or 15 years old). The students are divided according to their gender and are given a forty-minute introduction that usually covers the basics of contraception, as well as some information on sexually-transmitted diseases. The lesson does not normally include references to non-heterosexual sexual practices, nor are the topics of orgasm or partners’ pleasure mentioned. The teachers do not receive specific training or advice on how to prepare for these classes, and it is normally left to each teacher to determine how to present the lesson and what information to offer students (this task is usually, but not always, assigned to female biology teachers). According to research conducted in Ukraine in 2019, the vast majority of teachers felt awkward and unprepared during these lessons and commented that they would benefit from additional training on the topic. At present, future teachers are not receiving any training on how to talk about sex and sexuality with pupils – even though the majority of parents believe that schools should take care of their kids’ sexuality education. The Ukrainian Ministry of Education, however, does not seem to be in a hurry to provide such training. Why?

Over the past decade, ever more activists and civil society organizations have been arguing for the need to introduce so-called “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE) in Ukrainian schools, which is defined by the UN Population Fund as a “rights-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, whether in school or out of school,” and should include “scientifically accurate information about human development, anatomy, and reproductive health, as well as information about contraception, childbirth, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.” Initiatives to promote CSE are mostly sponsored by international and Western donor organizations and are coordinated regionally by various human rights civil society organizations, usually ones that work with women’s reproductive health and/or children’s rights. At the same time, CSE is not particularly welcomed by many Ukrainian conservative groups and organizations that see it as a “danger to the psychological well-being of minors” and even go as far as to suggest that CSE poses a threat to national security. The influence upon policymakers of these groups, among which the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) and the Association of Sexologists and Sexual Therapists of Ukraine (ASSTU) are the most significant, seems to be strong enough to prevent substantial progress in the sector.

Protecting schools from a “transsexual revolution

Conservative groups in Ukraine refer to CSE as “experiments on children” that are beyond their families’ control and aim to promote a so-called “gender ideology” in schools and to give children false ideas about what sexuality should mean in their lives as well as which kinds of sexualities are state-sanctioned and approved by society, and which are deviant and unacceptable. In the articles published on their websites and social media, representatives of such organizations refer to research results that allegedly prove that Western countries with more liberal approaches to sexuality education have higher rates of “gender deviations” as well as of suicide and depression among teenagers. Ukraine’s children, therefore, must be protected against such harmful influences, and schools must be “safe spaces where it is impossible to impose on children the idea that homosexuality and other sexual deviations are normal.”

The movement ‘Stop Sexual Education for Children’ launched by ASSTU defines the kind of sexual education they oppose as “sexual education realized through the propaganda of homosexual relations, destruction of family values and moral and ethical foundations.” By contrast, they argue that “properly organized sexual education” should teach youth “orientation towards couple relations, family values, friendship skills, love skills; how to love, show feelings, conscious choice of friends” and should never include topics such as criticizing parents or questioning their authority, discussions of polyamory, polygamy, or other forms of “alternative sexual relations,” or propagate homosexual contacts, since raising such issues could “affect the child’s still-evolving gender identity”. Moreover, sexuality must never be discussed in terms of pure physiological satisfaction without an understanding of the centrality of couple and family relations.

The potential for gender confusion, or introducing a “new” or “third” gender, is among the most popular arguments levied against comprehensive sexual education in schools. In particular, the Association of Sexologists and Sexual Therapists of Ukraine expresses concern about the consequences that teachers might face prosecution if they question the “gender chosen by a child” (this is how the Association refers to students’ transidentity). The Ukrainian Council of Churches, for their part, fear that CSE would result in the Church being driven out of schools, turning schools into spaces where a child’s gender and sexuality can be shaped in an inappropriate manner. The UCCRO speaks of the need to protect the “majority” of the children against those who “think” they might be a part of the LGBTQI community. Since these conservative groups reject the very idea that LGBTQI youth exist, they claim that pupils who present as such often wish for things that may not be in their best interests, and advise parents who want to avoid stimulating “psychological deviations in children” that they should understand that fostering the “harmonious development of a child does not mean fulfilling all their wishes.” Moreover, one cannot “take care of some children by ignoring or offending the others.” By this logic, offering trans children safe access to schools endangers the safety of other children and should, therefore, not be allowed.

In August 2021, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science announced plans to conduct a gender audit of schools nationwide. This provoked a strong reaction from conservative groups; in particular, UCCRO published an official appeal to the president of Ukraine asking him to withdraw from the international Biarritz initiative that “popularizes abortion among girls and promotes gender ideology.” Taking part in this initiative required taking multiple steps towards achieving comprehensive gender equality, including in the sphere of education. In its appeal to the president, UCCRO pointed out that the Western countries that founded the Biarritz initiative allegedly interpret gender equality not as the absence of discrimination against a person on the basis of gender but as a “normalization of the concept that people should independently choose their own gender according to their will.”

Opposing sexuality education in Ukraine: regional dimension

This opposition to introducing comprehensive sexuality education is only part of a wider resistance to gender and sexual activism in Central Eastern European countries that can be broadly described as an “anti-gender movement.” On the one hand, many arguments deployed by the opponents of comprehensive sexuality education in Ukrainian schools are very similar to those used by opponents of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in Bulgaria and Hungary (the first binding European document on the prevention of gender-based violence), as well as advocates of “LGBT-free zones” in Poland and of the notorious “anti-gay propaganda law” in Russia. Such groups claim that they are acting in the interests of minors who need to be protected from harmful gender confusion and gender ideology imposed from the West (the European Union). At the same time, also similarly to other countries, opposition to CSE in Ukraine has become more technologically advanced and better informed.

CSE-opponents have started using digital tools, e.g., creating ‘educational’ YouTube videos discussing homosexuality, transgender identity, and so-called “gender ideology,” thereby contesting information presented in Western academic literature. Compared to their conservative predecessors, opponents these days are much better informed and prepared for discussions, though they often manipulate facts and figures.

On the other hand, in Ukraine, as well as in other countries, opponents’ strategies, argumentation, and framings are largely shaped by cultural and historical specificities. The geopolitical positioning of Ukraine, situated between Russia, one of the major international advocates of “(Orthodox) Christian traditional family values” and the EU, which is seen by many as a global advocate of LGBTQI equality, leads to a situation in which resistance to gender and sexual equalities is expressed in apparently contradictory forms. For example, right-wing nationalists in Ukraine often use the same arguments and rhetoric against LGBTQI and women’s rights that is traditionally attributed to the Kremlin, their main enemy. To be able to engage with and counter such voices, it is essential to understand how they are rooted in place, connected to the country’s unique history, culture, and values.