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Article • Sexual Education: The Case of France (Part III)

11 February 2019

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Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Zoe Yarymowich

The first two parts of the article (I and II) described the history and legal situation, as well as the institutional organization of sex education in France. However, sticking to this level of analysis will only provide a glimpse of the subject. While a macro-sociological study provides an overview of a social issue, an analysis of the realities on the ground allows us to refine our understanding of the latter. Indeed, a study of the effectiveness of sex education courses cannot ignore the experiences of teachers and students. Thus, it is justified to wonder how these courses are experienced, organized and felt on the ground. Although almost all teaching on sexuality is left to the care of Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre (SVT, meaning “Life and Earth Sciences”) teachers who have little or no training on this topic (Teychenné 2013; Magot, 2017), which results in gaps in sex education, the students for their part seem relatively interested in these courses. Despite the shortcomings of the educational institution, the latter will construct their sexuality through experimentation, with the help of their peers who are an essential source of information and advice in their eyes.

The Solitude of SVT Teachers

Teaching about intimacy - including elements related to sexuality, gender issues, interactions and the affective dimension - within the school institution has always been strongly linked to life and health sciences courses. As early as the 1973 Fontanet circular - an internal document sent by an administrative authority to its subordinates to help them interpret legislation - it is the SVT teachers who were appointed for this task, in particular, to teach students about the biological processes related to this subject, such as puberty or reproduction. However, circular n° 2003-027 of February 17th, 2003 returned to the teaching of sex education by inviting all members of the pedagogical team, from teaching assistants to the principal, as well as teachers of all subjects, to take up this issue. My field study (Dusseau, 2016) as well as the few studies available on this subject (De Luca Barrusse et Le Den, 2016) nevertheless demonstrate that this is not the case and that only SVT teachers genuinely take up this issue, and not necessarily out of pure interest, but because the programs require them to do so. During informal interviews done with high school teachers - particularly in history, economics, social sciences and philosophy - and observations in the teachers’ lounge, almost all of them were surprised to learn that the legislative texts were explicit about the fact that the entire pedagogical team had to take up these subjects. Several teachers were perplexed by this obligation, arguing that it would be very difficult to insert such questions into their courses. Consequently, it was SVT teachers, because of tradition and ignorance of the legislative texts, who were exclusively in charge of these courses.

The first problem that arises is that of the organization of such lessons. If small schools only have one SVT teacher, the high school I studied had about ten teachers in this discipline. Two semi-structured interviews were conducted with two teachers, one in SVT and the other in philosophy. According to the SVT teacher interviewed, this organization makes it more difficult to carry out projects with other teachers. Thus, when two teachers join forces to set up a project, there is no obligation on the part of the administration to assign them the same class, which quickly discourages them. Moreover, since the school programs are so full, the timetables must be respected to the letter or else they will fall behind. As a result, the teacher interviewed told me that she had difficulty organizing sex education courses that would take time away from the curriculum.

Another issue that hinders the organization of these courses is the lack of training that SVT teachers receive on this topic. Despite the complexity of the topic of sexuality, the teacher interviewed admitted to the lack of training she received - particularly in psychology and sociology - whether during her degree or her career (Oihana, 2018). Despite the existence of training on this subject organized by the Local Education Authority for all teachers, the teacher interviewed no longer requested it after 10 years of rejection from the Local Education Authority - the administrative structure of the deconcentrated services of the National Education in charge of these issues. Since the courses offered during the teachers' schooling are incomplete, they have no choice but to apply for this continuing education program each year. However, because space is extremely limited, the teacher interviewed did not have any of her requests succeed and became discouraged.

Despite a certain willingness to take action, the SVT teachers, who are entirely responsible for managing sex education courses, seem to be alone. In addition, the fact that these subjects are part of the baccalaureate program - comparable to the high school diploma in Quebec - makes it difficult for students to take them on. As the SVT teacher confided to me during the interview: “I train them for the baccalaureate more than for sexuality and gender, as a priority.” (translated from French) The teacher also stated that she is very careful about what she says or shows in class so as not to be subjected to criticism from parents. This caution concretely translates into the blurring of genitals and breasts or showing annotated drawings or diagrams rather than photographs. The teacher's self-censorship is based on the experiences of colleagues who have been criticized by parents, although the teacher has not personally had such experiences.

Later in the interview, the teacher addressed the issue of gender and her lack of knowledge about this topic. Although she said that she had addressed the subject of homosexuality more in 2013 when the adoption of the law allowing same-sex marriage was passed, she nevertheless refused to tackle themes related to gender or even speak the word, not out of opposition, but for fear of not being able to answer the students’ questions properly.

The sex education intended for in the law is, therefore, difficult to teach in the field. Because of the lack of training for teachers, the subcontracting of these courses to SVT teachers, and the fact that sexuality has only recently become a subject of academic study (Brenot, 2007), it is the students who may suffer from the failings of the educational institution. But what do they have to say about this?

Relative Neutrality in the Face of Sex Education Courses

Sex education courses have a very limited impact on students, according to both the interviewees in the semi-structured interviews conducted during my research and the few studies conducted on this subject (Goguel d’Allondans, 2005; Le Den, 2016). This is a paradoxical situation when we know that these young people are the first to be targeted by public policies. Nevertheless, during interviews with eight students - four girls and four boys aged 17 to 19 - the latter has been very critical of these courses. Very few of them reported that they had learned relevant information in their sex education courses, describing the lessons as “basic” or “elementary”. In addition, none of the individuals interviewed mentioned the lessons in Grade 1 (equivalent to secondary V in Quebec, or 11th grade), and only the lessons organized in Grade 4 (equivalent to secondary II or 8th grade) were mentioned.

However, this should not be seen as an absolute failure. It is not so much the sex education courses that students criticize, but the way they think about them a priori and the disappointment they feel after attending them, as well as the lack of long-term courses. When I spontaneously asked them what they thought, the criticism was quick and ruthless. For many, the courses had a limited impact, either because they already had the information or because they expected more than just a “catalog” of scientific knowledge on the subject. The major problem is that the term “sex education” is too vague.

For Gagnon and Simon, individuals construct their relationship with sexuality based on life experiences, cultural elements and deciphering of non-verbal language (Gagnon, 2008; Gagnon and Simon, 1973). The combination of these three scripts is thus specific to each individual and influences their perception of sexuality, love and intimate matters. According to my analysis, this results in different expectations of the same courses.

In my opinion, the problem, therefore, comes from the asymmetry between the goals sought by the educational institution and the expectations of the students.

Notably because of the HIV epidemic during the 80s, not to mention sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs), sex education has always been synonymous with health education for the State. Given the complexity of the subject, the educational institution has always been very careful to avoid controversial issues such as pleasure, different sexual practices and orientations or even gender issues. As a strategy for dealing with potentially controversial subjects, the scientific discourse of these courses has been toughened up, at the risk of losing the students, because it is too complex or abstract for them. Conversely, during the interviews, the students were looking for knowledge that they could use immediately or information and testimonies that they could identify with, far from the abstruse scientific discourse.

Although almost all of the students stated that they had not gained much information from these courses, because their learning had taken place outside of the educational institution, the initiative was nevertheless appreciated and prevailed over substance. While many criticized the laughter and overreactions of some of their classmates during these courses and acknowledged that the teachers were not always very comfortable discussing these issues in Grade 4 (equivalent to secondary II or 8th grade in Quebec), the students nevertheless concede that the subject of contraceptives is useful, especially for others who do not have access to this information through their parents or another source.

The construction of Intimacy Among Young People: Between Emotional Tinkering and Peer Influence

The reason for young people’s disinterest in sex education courses is more factual than principled. They do not expect much from the educational institution in this area but remain nonetheless very curious about intimate matters in general and about otherness in particular (Berger et al., 2015; Goguel d’Allondans, 2005). Thus, for example, the SVT teacher interviewed stated that students are particularly attentive during the courses on trans or intersex people. Not out of unhealthy curiosity, but primarily because they find themselves in a period of change and construction of their identity, between the desire to be similar and distinct, different but integrated (Flis-Trèves and Frydman, 2014). The philosophy teacher confirmed this by telling me that the young people were very interested and talkative about these subjects as long as a benevolent and stimulating environment was established, which she did regularly in class.

What these young people are questioning is not so much the “technicality” of sexuality as otherness, the link to the Other and the means to act with the latter.

Concerning sexuality as such, the discourse collected during my study shows that young people seem to have a comfortable relationship with it. It is considered a normal part of marital life or life in general. The important thing for them is not so much the act as such - that is, the performance or the display of technical know-how - as discovery with a consenting partner. A 17-year-old girl told me about an experience she had three weeks earlier of group sex with two other boys her age. The question wasn’t so much about this act - which she said she had completely desired and enjoyed - but about whether she was “normal”. This exchange is symptomatic of a mismatch between the institutional discourse on sexuality and what young people actually experience.

Sex education courses seem too far removed from young people’s concerns in addition to seeming too abstract because they are too focused on the scientific dimension to the detriment of the relational.

The reluctance shown by the institution, which presupposes an embarrassment on the part of the students, is unfounded if we take the time to adapt the discourse to their references (Neill, 2004). Thus, at the request of a philosophy teacher who suggested that I intervene in a class of second years (equivalent to secondary IV or 10th grade in Quebec) on the issue of norms and normativity, I was able to address several topics related to intimacy - such as bisexuality, polyamory or even collective sexualities - by illustrating my remarks with examples taken from popular television series among teenagers such as The 100, Faking it or Glee. While the students seemed to have difficulty integrating the information given by the teacher, illustrating it with examples drawn from their cultural references aroused their curiosity. In doing so, they no longer necessarily needed the teacher’s help to move forward in their thinking but discussed these questions together in an interesting way. This was also seen in the way they positioned their bodies: initially slumped over on the table and not paying much attention to what was being said, the students gradually straightened up and turned towards each other when one of them took the floor. This experience was repeated during the sex education course led by the SVT teacher when she invited me to speak.

Faced with the shortcomings of the educational institution, which is reluctant to talk about sexuality, pleasure and human interactions, the students will cobble together their intimate lives by experimenting with various practices and types of relationships. It is their peers who will form the foundation of their learning because they are better able to answer their intimate questions while strongly controlling everything related to sexuality (Bérard and Sallée, 2016). These young people seek recognition of their uniqueness while also seeking recognition of it from their peers (Martuccelli, 2010). Discussions in this situation are based on sharing experiences, “tips” and “tricks” - to use the words of the interviewees - that will allow them to approach their relationships in the most fluid and comfortable way possible. This reflects complex learning of the action framework legitimately expected in this kind of situation (Goffman, 1991). If, according to those interviewed, parents remain a source of help in supporting and validating the intimate choices of each young person, it is peers who allow the sharing of experiences and advice. Far from the theoretical aspects of academic or scientific discourse, as far as the educational institution is concerned, peers are the privileged means of putting the intimate world into words, becoming aware of gender inequalities and shaping oneself through the prism of otherness, which is similar to the search for a relationship with others (Lévinas, 2006). The fact that they are not able to discuss these subjects in class is something that most of the students regret, which is further evidence of their willingness to confront their individuality to difference (De Singly, 2010) as well as their curiosity about these themes.

Sex Education: a Daily Struggle

As we have seen throughout these three parts (see parts I and II), teaching about intimacy is not an easy task. Multiple political views clash, from conservatism to political liberalism including libertarian and religious movements. These courses are also permeated by the state logic inherited from bio-power, but also by a certain discomfort in teaching elements of intimate life to young people. Sex education is a topic that carries many emotions within it, a privileged terrain for ruthless political struggles, but it is essential in that it makes it possible to avoid perpetuating and reinforcing racial, gender and social inequalities (Le Mat, 2016).

However, individual initiatives sometimes emerge, allowing teachers to address topics related to intimacy. Thus, the privileged relationship with students that forms the basis of the act of teaching makes it easier for teachers to address sensitive issues such as sexuality. Although this requires a particular self-presentation - that is, the various embodied social processes by which a person will present themselves to others and manage interactions between what is or is not permitted - (Goffman, 1973) particularly linked to the specific expectations of different social roles, it is not impossible for the classroom to be a place conducive to discussions on this subject. For example, the philosophy teacher stated that she used the flexibility offered by her subject to discuss this topic with students.

Finally, it is important not to underestimate who is first affected by these courses, namely the students. Sexuality is often perceived by adults as a problem when it comes to teaching it to young people because of a historical mistrust of youth (De Luca Barrusse, 2016), and therefore, it is considered necessary to frame it with force (Le Mat, 2016). In reality, it is much more of a problem for adults themselves and is indicative of a moral panic (Ogien, 2003), with young people being perceived as being negatively influenced by sexuality. However, in reality, these young people are relatively neutral to this subject or show curiosity towards the topic that they consider, and that is imposed on them as important (Goguel d’Allondans, 2005; Cestele, 2018). If young people talk a lot about it among themselves, peers can potentially become normative by valuing certain behaviours and discouraging others, for example by promoting heterosexuality and stigmatizing homosexuality (Melini, 2009; Richard, 2015). However, the curiosity and the enormous reflexivity shown by the students interviewed, especially the girls, tend to show the potential that exists in this area. All that remains is for all of our societies and all of their components to take up this theme, which is vital to the well-being of its members.


To cite this article :

Dusseau, F. (2019, February 11). Sexual Education: The Case of France (Part III). Les 3 sex*https://les3sex.com/en/news/334/chronique-education-a-la-sexualite-le-cas-francais-partie-iii- 

sexual education, sex ed, teaching, school, France, students, teachers, course, institution, organization, teenager, adolescent


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