Sexuality education and human rights

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

2 July 2010

Effective sexuality education is about much more than birds and bees. As well as information on conception, pregnancy and childbirth, good sexuality education encompasses learning about relationships (including abusive ones), having a secure sense of self to help buffer a child against the rampant sexualisation and pornographication of consumer culture, appropriate personal boundaries, and knowledge of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) experience. All delivered at age-appropriate stages.

However the reality is that sexuality education is as diverse as sexuality itself. Some say schools should be responsible, others parents. Some teach only abstinence, some only reproduction, some the holistic version outlined above. This variation is found between countries and states, right down to between individual pupils in the same school, with parents in New Zealand for example, having the option of removing their children from sexuality education classes.

Sexuality education and human rights – examples

Human rights and sexuality education are interrelated, with sexuality education supporting human rights and vice versa. The right to freedom of information1 for example demands that young people be given access to information about their sexuality. This could in turn directly impact their rights to health2 and education3, for example through preventing early pregnancy which has known risk factors4.

Likewise young people have a right to information about LGBT identities, and not just about the conventional marital breeding unit which underpins Western notions of appropriate sexual behavior.

In turn, sexuality education supports multiple human rights including the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health – as shown by the teenage pregnancy example above – and even the right to work5.

For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) catalogues a range of adverse effects resulting from girls’ exposure to sexually objectifying images6, including “development, self-esteem, friendships and intimate relationships, ideas about femininity, body image, physical, mental and sexual health, sexual satisfaction, desire for plastic surgery, risk factors for early pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections, educational aspirations and future career success.” Sexuality education is vital in countering the prolific and ubiquitous sexualisaton of adults and children, and in upholding the human rights which such sexualisation challenges.

The issue is particularly pressing for LGBT youth. A June 2010 report by American Progress7 reveals that in the USA, disproportionate numbers of homeless young people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They are at higher risk of sexual assault (58% have been sexually assaulted compared to 33% of heterosexual homeless youth), alcohol abuse (42% compared to 27%) and school bullying due to their sexuality (86% were verbally harassed, 44% physically harassed and 22% physically attacked).

So again, sexuality education – or the lack of it – directly impacts human rights. As New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission says “Bullying, harassment and/or violence at school are serious. They affect the right of young people to be safe and free from violence and their right to education”.

Reproductive rights

There is also the whole area of reproductive rights to consider and sexuality education has a significant role in informing young people, especially girls, about their rights in this area.

The World Health Organization for example has a section on Gender and Reproductive Rights which “aims to promote and protect human rights and gender equality as they relate to sexual and reproductive health”. The Center for Reproductive Rights describes the reproductive rights of women as “when, how and whether to bear children, control their bodies and sexuality, access essential sexual and reproductive health information and services, and be free from violence”.

My page human rights instruments supporting motherhood outlines human rights treaties supporting reproductive rights.

Is sexuality education just for children?

The above examples raise questions about who most needs sexuality education. Is it just children or also parents and wider society? The American Progress report reveals that the average age LGBT youth become homeless in New York is just 13 (transgender) and 14 (lesbian and gay), with 62% experiencing discrimination from their families. The average age gay and lesbian youth come out is 13, after self-identifying as gay or lesbian as young as ages 5 to 7.

There is clearly a need for education to happen early and within wider society. New Zealand-based Sexuality Educator, Rachel Hansen, comments: “I run workshops for parents on communicating with their children about sexuality and recently held my first one that focussed on the preschool years. The majority of the attendees hadn’t given sexuality education for their preschoolers much thought, but all agreed how crucial it was that we start this conversation early. From the moment children are born they are busy learning about everything – including sexuality, and it is crucial we set the framework for a healthy sexuality in those early years. Parents need to ensure that “sexuality” is an ongoing conversation rather than that cliched Big Talk”.

Hansen continues: “Most of my work is focused on helping parents gain the knowledge and confidence to successfully help their children learn about sexuality. However, unfortunately many children are not raised in homes where the support, love and knowledge about sexuality is there. That is why it is important that all children have access to comprehensive holistic education at schools also.”

Just like human rights, sexuality exists whether or not you are educated about it, so society ignores the issue at its peril. And with the human rights implications so significant, governments have a duty to undertake comprehensive sexuality education programmes as part of their commitments resulting from ratifying the various UN human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Hansen concludes: “Sexuality education purely from a ‘reproduction’ or ‘danger danger’ perspective is worse than no sexuality education at all.” It is certainly utterly ineffective in terms of supporting human rights.

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1 Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

2 Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICECSR) & Article 24 CRC

3 Article 13 ICECSR and Article 28 CRC

4 Women’s Health Teenage Pregnancy fact sheet

5 Article 6 ICECSR

6 February 2007 report by the APA’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

7 On the Streets The Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth


Rachel Hansen Parent Workshops and School Sexuality Education and facebook page Rachel Hansen, Health and Wellbeing Educator

Sexuality Education Roundtable of New Zealand

Liberty & Humanity

Sexualisation Articles