Translated by Chloé Sautter-Léger
As we have seen in Part I of this series, introducing sexual education into the French school system was a long and complicated process that began over a century ago, with clashes and debates between various stakeholders. Over the past 40 years, however, an increasing number of legislative texts are indicative of a greater overall awareness of the importance of sexual education in schools. In this second part of the series, we will look past the legal situation and examine what happens concretely inside the education system.
In 2015 and 2016, I conducted a study on the introduction and the reception of courses on sexuality and gender in a rural high school in the department of Gironde in France. The study was carried out in two parts: direct observation inside the institution and in a sexual education course in a class of students aged between 16 and 17; and a dozen interviews with students aged 17 to 19 and with teaching staff (in philosophy and Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre courses (SVT)). The data collected was used for qualitative analysis and complimented by a review of existing scientific literature—which proved challenging because the subject is not well studied. There were stark differences between what was revealed in the institution I observed and the existing governmental and academic reports on the subject. An in-depth observation of the instructional organizations themselves—I was able to visit a number of them—showed that the School is by far more an institution of sexual control—than one of emancipation like it professes to be. The hierarchical structure of the institution, also, is an obstacle to the proper introduction of sex ed courses in schools, because a lack of cooperation at any level of decision-making can threaten to penalize the students.
Uneven Application Throughout the System
As stated in Part I, there is, in France, a sizeable amount of legislation about sexual education. Whether it be for prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and of HIV, discussion about gender issues, or answering any questions youth may have about sexuality, legal texts that currently regulate French schools are comprehensive enough to allow educators to create effective courses on the subject, and to oversee the entirety of the sex ed curriculum (Eduscol, 2008; Ministère de l’éducation nationale, 2017).
According to the Law, students should be getting at least three classes per year, i.e. a total of 27 classes over the course of their mandatory education until the age of 16, or 36 classes for those who complete the French baccalaureate. In practice, however, these legally prescribed objectives are not attained in any school I visited, nor is any school operating according to the Law. Most students, in fact, only receive a total of two classes throughout their education. The one that students and teachers mentioned the most in interviews is the one in Grade 8. In this class, which is usually given by science teachers, various STI prevention and contraceptive methods are mentioned, in some cases with a demonstration of how to put on a condom. Most students interviewed about this class said that it was not particularly memorable—either because they already knew what was taught on that day, or because they found the information to be presented in a very simplistic manner. These opinions echo the difficulties faced by guest speakers who deal with this topic in schools. According to them, topics addressed in classrooms—primarily about sexual health—do not amount to what students would like to learn about, for example discussion about relationships and concrete aspects of sexuality (Le Den, 2016).
Another lesson takes place in the 11th grade (at least in theory). While the class in 8th grade is part of the (separate) sexual education programme, this one is directly part of the mandatory science class, during which pupils are supposed to gain a better knowledge of human anatomy and the reproductive system. The difference in perspective of these two classes (one being part of the sex ed program, the other of an advanced science class) affects the way students experience them. Whereas the 8th grade class is perceived as a break for the students in the academic day (Berger, Rochigneux et al., 2015), the second class is integrated in a completely different approach.
In the 11th grade class, it’s not a matter of calmly addressing an intimate and complex issue, but rather of presenting material that will be evaluated, in a rationale of failure or success.
Students don’t see this class as a way to learn about issues they are concerned about: they see it as a collection of notions to learn for an exam (Dusseau, 2016)—although the science teacher we interviewed said that topics relating to sexuality would never appear on the final exam for the French baccalaureate, because academy inspectors fear certain parents’ reactions.
There are also many inequalities between schools situated in different areas: for schools in the more privileged areas of large cities, there is a helpful presence of local associations like the Planning Familial and LGBT+ associations, but for schools situated in underprivileged and impoverished rural neighbourhoods, there are far fewer resources to help deal with issues like adolescent pregnancy or sexual discrimination (De Luca Barrusse and Le Den, 2016). Moreover, some private schools, like the religious ones, are unwilling to comply with laws that require them to implement sexual education courses. The media even often calls out these institutions for opposing sexual freedom (L’Union, 2018).
Schools as Institutions of Control
Although legislation is increasingly present, sexual education is far from being implemented in all schools in France. What’s more, the Institution itself is often problematic with respect to this aspect of education.
Michel Foucault opposed freudo-marxist theories, which, according to him, proposed that bourgeois morality led to sexual repression (Reich, 1970), and argued that sex is far from being silenced in Western societies (Foucault, 1994). For him, “biopower”—an interest in managing life in order to obtain a profit from a population (Genel, 2004)—emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century and became structured around two distinctive objectives: the corps-machine and the corps-espèce (Jacomino, 2014). The first objective aims to subdue people by means of institutions such as schools and the military, while the second aims to control daily actions through analysis, intervention, and social discourse. Thus, in schools, where sexuality might not be explicitly referenced, rules and even the spatial planning of the building implicitly infer normative sexual behaviours. Individuals are therefore permanently surveyed, students are strictly monitored, and daily schedules are rigorously planned “for everything to relate back to the pupil’s sexuality” (Foucault, 1994).
In my study (Dusseau, 2016), the school I surveyed regulates everything that happens very strictly, from the moment the doors open to the second they close. In all their movements, children are constantly under the surveillance of an adult and, if they attempt to escape this surveillance and have some intimacy, adults are on watch and make this nearly impossible. While I was there, I saw a number of students, namely couples, trying to hide in corners of the school yard or under staircases to share a few quick kisses or affections. When adults passed by, they systematically called them out, and when there was nothing to explicitly criticize in the children’s behaviour, the monitors would mentally take note of these micro-manifestations of intimacy and increase their surveillance. There were not, however, systematic sanctions for these behaviours. I also observed such controlling behaviours inside an 11th grade sex ed class. The classroom was arranged so that everything could be observed by all students and by the teacher at all times, allowing everybody’s reactions to be closely monitored. Everything in the classroom is meticulously observed, deconstructed and analyzed, especially that which concerns intimacy and sexuality. For example, students gossip about relationships (“Did you know that X broke up with Y? Poor her!”) or seduction strategies, like desk neighbours informing each other of certain students insistently observing others. Clothing, particularly for girls, is another excellent example of constant normative control. Outfits considered too bold or provocative—signals of a budding or active sexuality—are constantly commented on by students.
With all this in mind, one may wonder how an institution with such strict control over sexual behaviour can offer a complete sexual education (Pelège and Picod, 2006)—not only about biological aspects, but also about relationships and diversity (Jasmin, 2007).
The Hierarchy of the Institution: An Obstacle to the Implementation of Sex Ed in Schools
According to sociologist Émile Durkheim, the institution of the School, whose universalist aims originated in line with the Catholic Church, seeks to be a place that is morally unified, harboring students in order to act upon their entire nature (Durkheim, 1990). This model of the School as a sanctuary of moral education persisted until 1985, when the moral education imperative was lifted and replaced with one of civic instruction. And it was at this time, with moral education courses disappearing, that sexual education started to be implemented (Lelièvre, 2006). The School organization became based on morals and laws of the French Republic, which pursue “indifference to differences” (Alessandrin and Dagorn, 2016). Over the years, these morals, promoted by governing bodies, became progressively applied throughout the system, from administrative levels to students. Such a strongly hierarchized system, however, can have negative impacts on the sexual education courses that are in fact taught. While an increase in legislation indicates a general increase of awareness, the way schools act on legislation depends largely on the willingness of the many people involved. As noted, for example, by an administrative employee, not all schools offer the same amount of sexual education. At the mention of the curriculum, with three hours of sexual education per year, the employee, who is responsible for introducing and monitoring a public policy on gender equality, laughed and said, “I am unable to answer about that, at this stage, I don’t have a panoramic view of what has been implemented.”
If even one single person at a higher administrative level doesn’t cooperate, all the people at lower levels are paralyzed. The law strongly encourages school principals to introduce a sex ed program. But in the way schools are currently institutionalized and enshrined, principals dispose of many tools to block efforts to implement these programs, should they decide not to apply the law exactly. Indeed, a member of the SVT - Égalité association explained that he wanted to include non-sexist and non-heteronormative instruction in his classes, and presented his plan to the inspecteur d’académie of his region (a senior executive of the Ministry of National Education) and to two successive school directors. These institutional decision makers invariably acknowledged the relevance of the plan, but they never followed through with support and stopped responding to the association’s inquiries. Problems of hierarchy are found even at the level of individual instructors, who sometimes decide not to give the mandatory sexual education courses, for whatever reason, thus penalizing their students.
The Law Does Not Always Rule
Although there is sufficient legislation regulating sexual education in France, the objectives sought are far from matching the actual situation. We can note inequalities between institutions, showing that some students receive complete courses that correspond to what they expect, while others only receive very minimal instruction, or even, in some cases, none at all. In fact, the structure of the School institution itself tends to control sexuality rather than to educate about it. This also means that people at different levels of the administrative system can put breaks into the implementation of courses—from school inspectors, to principals, and even to teachers, people can decide not to offer sex ed courses. What is the opinion, then, of these people, at the end of the chain? The third part of this series will focus on the opinions of teachers and, especially, students.
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