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Sexual Education: The case of France Part I

11 September 2018

Translated by Chloé Sautter Léger

Last December, Quebec’s Minister of Education, Sébastien Proulx, declared his intention to make sexual education compulsory for all elementary and secondary school students in the province, starting with the 2018-2019 school year (Radio-Canada, 2017a). Proulx called for the entire educational community to commit to this project, aiming to fight against sexual aggression and misconduct reported recently by public figures in Quebec (Richer, 2017), to prevent future aggression acts, and to fight against the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among youth (Burgun, 2017). However, despite an apparent consensus in the political community, objections and resistance remain an issue (FSE-CSQ, 2018).

Resistance and critiques are not innocuous—they reveal tensions and preoccupations that run through our society. With the population of Quebec querying about these issues, I will take the case of France to illustrate that these questions, as fundamental as they seem to be, are not universal, and that a profound reflection about sexual education in schools is needed.

To address a topic as broad and complex as sexual education, we will need an in-depth analysis. First, we must observe the functioning of educational institutions and the history of sex ed; and then we should look at people’s concrete experiences in this domain. This series will include three parts. In this first part, I will provide an overview of the history of sexual education in France, a constant product of continuous struggles between different spheres of influence. In the second, I will show that current legislation does not provide for a good quality of instruction, because of the institutional organization of schools and because too much power is given to people at different institutional levels. In the third part, I will provide a study that focuses on how individuals—primarily teachers and students—concretely experience teachings related to sexuality. Teachers’ position on the issue is usually ambivalent, and their action and involvement are often limited to volunteer work. Students, for their part, exhibit curiosity and a will to work on alternatives to compensate for the lack of initiative of the institutional system.

Origins of Sexual Education in France

Sexual education in France has not been the mere consequence of the social and societal developments of the 60s and 70s; it is rather the product of many struggles and of an increased public sensitivity to issues concerning health. At the end of the eighteenth century, the State realized how important and advantageous it was to control demography.

Controlling fertility became a major advantage for states: raising the birth rate implied increasing the work force and the military potential.

A concept coined by Michel Foucault as “biopower” (Foucault, 1994) describes the specific methods and legal contrivances applied to individuals and populations to regulate demography. Public policies that take into account the economic and military importance of optimizing procreation, for example by controlling and taking responsibility over the medical dimension of "venereal diseases" and sexuality, became prominent in Western societies (Foucault, 1994). While Western powers had often leaned towards an absolutist control of sexuality—seeing it as a source of disorder and a menace to public order (Weeks, 2014)—public discourse on sexuality changed its emphasis in the nineteenth century. Formerly envisioned within the domain of “nature” (studied in relation to animals and plants), sex became spoken of more precisely in medical terms (Corbin, 2010). There was also a shift in who was targeted by the normative rhetoric: formerly addressed to couples, it became directed at women and children: women were reproved if they did not conform to the role of wife and mother and children were punished for indulging in “abnormal” practices such as masturbation (De Luca Barrusse and Le Den, 2016).

A segment of the libertarian Left, anarchists and utopic socialists, for instance, responded to the absolutist claims of the medical discourse by arguing the opposite. Paul Robin founded the anarchist Ligue pour la régénération humaine in 1896, advocating for sexual freedom and free unions in the neo-Malthusian tradition of population control (Jaspard, 2005). These libertarian waves argued that mass procreation practices were a scheme of the bourgeois to obtain fighters for future wars, workers to nourish the factories, and prostitutes for their personal entertainment. Many activists strove to educate worker communities about birth control. Some socialist thinkers like Charles Fourier saw in sexual education a means to change society strongly and permanently for the better, and to strive toward gender equality (Fourier, 1993).

Moralists and hygienists were strongly opposed to neo-Malthusian critiques, suggesting they attacked moral order and the institution of the family, a fundamental basis of society in their views. Sociologists such as Émile Durkheim called for a hygienically oriented sexual education (addressed to upper classes primarily) so as to maintain a strict division of gender roles in couples (Durkheim, 2011). With the two World Wars that followed, libertarian ideals were put on a halt for a few decades. Given the magnitude of the bloodshed, neo-Malthusian theories were rapidly set aside, and projects of sexual education were not a priority anymore.

Progressive Institutionalization of Sexual Education

After the Second World War, the first initiatives to institutionalize sexual education appeared (Mossuz-Lavau, 2002). In the 1947 revision of education and the school system, a proposition was made to integrate sexual education. The Commission François was created to study the question, but no policy was put into place. It was not until the early 1970s that a more widespread legislative change occurred—partly as a consequence of the May 1968 events and the demands for greater sexual freedom. A law was passed on July 11th 1973, creating the Conseil supérieur de l’information sexuelle, de la régulation des naissances et de l’éducation familiale, marking the beginning of the State taking over responsibility on sexual issues. The first sexual education courses, however, were created only after the issuing of the “circulaire”—a prescriptive text written by an administrative authority to explain how the law was to be interpreted (n°73-299, July 23 1973, said circulaire Fontanet).

Debates arose over whether courses should be “informative” or rather “educational,” influenced by recently created associations such as the Planning Familial, workers unions, or even religious institutions (Belbenoit, 1973). “Informative” courses would have aimed to objectively inform students with facts about sexuality. The “educational” option proposed a normative teaching to influence behaviours. The final decision was in favour of the informative courses, leaving the educational aspect to families. Sexual information, from that moment, became the prerogative of science teachers (within Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre classes), where a relatively limited, biological schooling was introduced.

Despite the innovative angle of the circulaire, however, the question of training the teachers was left unaddressed. Many teachers complained about this situation (S.B., 1979), something that is happening nowadays in Quebec as well (Radio-Canada, 2017b ; Sioui et Fortier, 2017 ; Fortier, 2017).

In the following twenty years, only three corrections or improvements were made to the sexual information agenda. The first was in 1981: the Minister of Education, Alain Savary, implemented informative teaching on contraception to schools. The circulaire Chevènement in 1985, imposed mandatory sex ed in elementary schools; later, a decree promoted partnerships between schools and associations in 1992. Organizations fighting against AIDS and STIs spent years pushing for courses promoting prevention, but it was not until 1996 that the government issued the circulaire called “Prévention du sida en milieu scolaire : éducation à la sexualité.” This first attempt was a failure in schools, so a new circulaire was published in 1998, which also introduced teaching on psychology, socio-cultural elements, and gender. The 2001-588 Law on voluntary termination of pregnancy and on contraception (July 4th, 2001) included a framework for teaching these topics. From this point on, three courses had to be taught each year, in every grade from elementary school to the end of high school. Sexual education became a matter of concern for the entire educational community, from supervisors to teachers of all disciplines (Poutrain, 2014)—a situation similar to the current one in Quebec.

In 2012, debates arose following a governmental decision to construct an action plan, the “ABCD de l’égalité,” in favour of gender equality. The project was to introduce a course which would be taught to children ages five to eighteen, addressing the topics of sexuality, gender stereotypes, sexism, and violence against women (Chartier, 2012). Many associations, however, were opposed to these developments—particularly Catholic organizations—maddened by the legalization of gay marriage (Radieer, 2013); The project was dropped.

With a complicated history and reflections dating back more than a century, sexual education in France has been the subject of procrastination and difficulties. In a society reluctant to discuss sexuality with young people, sexual education cannot be envisioned optimistically. A study by Virginie De Luca Barrusse and Mariette Le Den (2016) has shown that discussion about sexual education in France is caught between resistance and progression, a constant struggle of social actors against historic events: marked by both setbacks and fast innovations. While a progressive way of thinking was in the works in libertarian circles, both World Wars brutally put a halt to these ideas, and even lead to a criminalization of abortion which lasted decades. Legislation exists and theoretically provides an organizational structure for sexual education. Practically, however, there are many gaps in the system. How are these matters experienced concretely in French schools? The second part of this series will attempt to provide an answer to this question. 

sexual education, sex ed, sexuality education, France, bio-power, power of the living, Fontanet circular, François commission, Félix Dusseau


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