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Denmark’s sex education changes focus

Photo credit: Sex og Samfund

As the Nordic country’s birth rate continues to fall, the nation’s primary sex education material provider hopes to offer a solution in a curriculum change.

By James Zhang and Alex Bond

For Danish primary schools, a clever play on words has given teachers the option to turn the sixth week of classes into an opportunity to promote sexual education.

The “Week Sex” campaign (‘sex’ and the Danish word for six are similar in sound) has chosen topics in the past that ranged from having the “sex talk” with your parents, to masturbation and falling in love. It serves as a supplement to a proper sex education in Denmark – a mandatory subject in primary and lower secondary education – which covers sex, health and relationship subjects both tangible and intangible.

The program is administered by the Danish organisation Sex and Society, who provide sex education materials to schools for this week and beyond, in a country that ranks as one of the lowest in the world for teenage pregnancies.

The Nordic country has simultaneously seen its birth rate fall to the lowest it has been in nearly three decades. In October 2014, in light of this information, Sex and Society announced a shift in focus to their curriculum: from how to avoid pregnancy, to teaching how to have children.

“Sex education should also be about the challenges of having children as you want,” Bjarne Christensen, secretary general of Sex and Society, said in a news release. “Of course we must not look into forcing young people to have children early. But they must be able to decide on an informed basis.”

The Copenhagen-based organisation hopes to address these changes in their Week Sex program, as well as the training they offer to teachers to help implement sex education into their classes.


“Approaching epidemic”

Denmark’s struggle with infertility shows in the number of births in the country. The birth rate, representing the total number of births in a year per 1,000 people, among Danish women is “dangerously low,” according to the latest report from the Copenhagen-based Rigshospitalet, published this February.

This figure has been steadily decreasing since 1994, reaching its lowest point in 2013. Across the European Union, countries are facing declining birth rates — the number in the EU has leveled out at around 5 million births annually since the mid-1990s, according to Bloomberg.

With the death rate staying constant, the net population growth without immigration for the Nordic country has been decreasing, from around 11,000 in 2008 to 3,000 in 2013, according to the Nordic Statistical Institutes and Eurostat.


Meanwhile, immigration contributes significantly to maintain Denmark’s slight growth in population in recent years. The net migration rate surged to 5.3 in 2013; one in every two new people added to the population last year is an immigrant. According to Danish newspaper Ugebrevet A4, 37 municipalities would be facing depopulation since 2008 without immigration.

The trend has profound effects not only on individuals but also on the economy and the outlook for standards of life, says Nabanita Datta Gupta, professor of economics at Aarhus University. Denmark’s welfare state economy has operated with a “pay-as-you-go” system, Gupta says, with young people supporting the older, retired population through work and taxes.

A reform to the pension system in recent years will have working Danes saving more towards their own retirement, and will no longer be as dependent on their children’s generation. This is not the case for all Danish welfare services, however.

“There are many other aspects of the welfare state that are still quite dependent on taxation, and for that we need a large worker base,” Gupta says. In Denmark, not many working populations are left untapped either, with women working and immigration tightly regulated. “So yes, this (the birth rate) is going to have implications for our future level of welfare services in the economy.”


Age matters

Researchers of the report from Copenhagen hospital Rigshospitalet said the majority of couples interviewed in the study said they want to have two or three children. However, one-fifth of them turned out to be childless years later, and the current rate of 1.7 children per family is not enough to maintain the current population.

Sex and Society’s news release on their slated curriculum change states that almost one in every 10 children in Denmark are conceived through assistance in a fertility clinic, and 10 percent of all Danish women won’t have as many children as they hope to have.

Søren Ziebe, the fertility clinic manager of the Copenhagen-based hospital, pointed out in the report that the average age that Danish women give birth is 29, compared to 24 in 1970. Also, more women wait until 35 or later to conceive.

Ziebe and the other authors think the general age to first conceive is “very old”, reproductively speaking. “We are living longer, but the period in which we should be having children remains the same,” researchers wrote in the report.

According to research done by the Reproductive Epidemiology Department at Aarhus University, a woman’s ability to become pregnant decreases proportionally with time. Female eggs are created during pregnancy and cannot be produced later. This means throughout life, women use germ cells that are as old as she is.

As age increases, so does the amount of alcohol and cigarette consumption. In general, chances of having a child for a 25-year-old woman are higher than for a 30-year-old, according to the study.

Karen Mette Hansen, health consultant of the educational department of Children and Youth in Aarhus, said the city would incorporate the new direction into school curriculums early next year. However, she has doubts about the actual change.

“I don’t think it’s going to change much,” said Hansen. “Young women in Denmark think they need to have an education, to have an career, before they get children, and that is a problem.”

“It’s difficult to have babies around when you are trying to pursue a career. What if the children are sick and need to be taken care of?” said Hansen.

Gupta said she agrees the change in society has something to do with the decades of birth rate decline. She emphasised that more women are looking for a career rather than a job. When the timing of fertility seems to coincide with those years that you are supposed to be most active on the labour market, some of them deliberately deferred fertility decisions until their 30s.


Sex ed in Denmark

Sex education has been a mandatory subject in Denmark since 1970, though it is one that does not receive its own class or teacher. Instructors from nursery school to the ninth grade are required to incorporate sex education, along with health and family studies, into other compulsory subjects such as biology or social studies, as outlined by the Ministry of Education.

The administration of the curriculum is left to municipalities to decide on how the material is taught in accordance with the ministry’s targets. In Aarhus, the city’s Children and Youth department is responsible for coordinating material to improve sex education for students.

According to the department’s website, the content is divided into three age groups (nursery school to 3rd grade; 4th to 6th grade; and 7th to 9th grade) that progressively introduces age-sensitive material across the themes of emotions, the body, family, well-being and sex. The department also works with Sex and Society to provide educators with material to better teach their classes in these areas.

Sex education in Denmark has focused on teaching students about sexual activity itself, including prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, said Mette With Hagensen, chairman of the Danish National Association of Schoolparents. Sex and Society also emphasise teaching the feelings and emotions that surround relationships and intimacy in the information provided on their website.

Though the success of all these methods is not always quantifiable, the country does boast one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world: according to World Bank data, there are five births for every 1,000 women age 15-19 in 2012. The United States had 31.

“Sex education in Danish schools is very good,” Hansen says. “(Sex and Society) speak the language of the young.”

Still, the system is far from perfect, says sex educator Helge Myrup of Seksualundervisning, a nationwide supplementary sex education provider in Denmark.

“It’s a long way before I could say it’s good teaching,” Myrup says. “For example, we still have problems with how to train teachers to teach about sex.”

Myrup, who has been a sex educator in Jutland and Funen for the past 20 years, said many teachers are not formally trained in teaching sex education, and may shy away from the subject because of their close relationship with the students.

“The teachers are too close to the students,” Myrup says. “You can’t have someone teach you about masturbation one day and the next day help you through your schoolwork.”

The larger issue at stake, according to Myrup, is that sex education class is not the sole way of children learning about sex. When it comes to sex itself, pornography might be the only, or earliest, teacher. Myrup says many of his students get their first knowledge of sex and sexuality through watching porn, and that the content of these videos could sometimes be misleading.

“I’ve talked to many young girls about their first time and when they do, they give the guys blowjobs, they took it naturally because everyone in porns does that,” Myrup says. “But that’s not true. That’s not the only way to have sex.”


Potential solutions

Sex and Society plans to propose a detailed way of implementing the recent change of curriculum. However, according to its communication officer Jane Kofod, the actual effect depends on the cooperation between schools and parents. Mette With Hagensen, chairman of Danish National Association of Schoolparents, said she agrees that there must be collaboration between the two.

“It is a mutual responsibility,” she says. “Kids can only learn limited amount of knowledge at school. So parents also need to teach their kids about this at home.”

Hagensen also said she does not believe added information in classes alone can solve Denmark’s decreasing birth rate, but she believes it is a step closer to a solution.

“I emphasise knowledge and empowering our children to be able to care for themselves and make their own choices,” she says. “The change in focus in the sex education will do just that.”

Sex and Society’s curriculum change is good, Hansen says, as students have been learning about fertility in biology courses for years but it will now also be incorporated into their sex education. However, she still thinks the solution to Denmark’s fertility problem lies elsewhere.

“The decrease in birth rates has little to do with sex and a lot to do with modern families coping with careers and children,” Hansen says. “The solution lies in parental leave, daycare and a change in work-life culture so that it is possible to manage children and a career for both parents.”

Professor NABANITA DATTA GUPTA’s take on the reason for Denmark’s low birth rate.


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