KLAIPEDA. Lithuania | There was no sex in the Soviet Union – or so people liked to joke in a time when propaganda to thwart “fetid capitalism” or “Western decadence” warned against an unhealthy obsession with the pleasures of the flesh.
Of course, Soviet society couldn’t have survived without a little hanky-panky. People just had to have children without the benefit of family counselors, sexologists, or even psychologists, unless you count the kind that treated unapproved political behavior.
Now two decades free of Soviet strictures – and 50 years after the West’s sexual revolution – Lithuania is still grappling with this legacy as it struggles to teach young people about the birds and the bees in an education system experts call antiquated and puritanical, especially when compared to the permissive Nordic approach across the Baltic Sea.
“We are all free, but we have not freed ourselves when it comes to schoolchildren’s sexual education,” said Arunas Aleksandravicius, director of the Darius and Girenas secondary school in the small town of Silale, western Lithuania. “The teachers still fumble and stammer when the curriculum forces them to talk about intimate life.”
Lithuanian teachers are hardly the only educators to fumble over this delicate topic, but advocates of improving the curriculum maintain that the country can’t afford to be complacent when it comes to preparing kids for their inevitable sexual awakening.
UNICEF’s 2013 Innocenti Report Card shows that Lithuanian teenagers are among the most fertile in Europe, with 18 births annually per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. That puts the country well ahead of 23 other European nations with lower teen fertility rates and leaves more of its young people facing everything from the risk of sexually transmitted diseases to the psychological trauma that often follows impulsive and naïve choices about sex.
Many factors contribute to these statistics, such as cultural traditions of early marriage, that may be more prevalent in one nation than another. In Lithuania, many blame the dominant Catholic Church for standing in the way of comprehensive sex education, but even some clerics seem to recognize the need for covering this subject.
“Sex education certainly has to be a serious subject in a school’s curriculum. Purity, sure, is important, but sexual drive is God’s gift. It has to be used properly, however,” said Tomas Davainis, an outspoken priest from the Vilnius Archdiocese.
The problem, experts say, is that sex education isn’t taught seriously. The administrator Aleksandravicius said that in his town, schools offer very little relevant instruction before eighth grade, and that what is offered is generally scattershot.
“If the teacher in charge of a class is young and anticipates the students’ needs for that kind of information, he or she might bring the subject up on his own or invite over a specialist from a local public health center for a lecture,” he explained.
What is needed instead, Aleksandravicius said, is someone with more knowledge and more distance from the students, such as a sexologist from an urban center.
“In my experience, schoolchildren open up only for outsiders, but we cannot invite over a sexologist as this is not [outlined] in the teaching programs,” he said, referring to sex eduation guidelines the government introduced in 2006. “Therefore, there’s no financing for that.”
He also said that “apprehension about breaking the hinterland’s certain unwritten rules” on talking about sex is a factor in school officials’ reluctance to improve instruction.
Esmeralda Kuliesyte, executive director of the Family Planning and Sexual Health Association in Vilnius, echoed this point.
“Certainly, with the topic of sex still being taboo in most families – a result of the particularly time-resistant traditions and influence of the Lithuanian Catholic Church – you cannot expect teachers will do what the parents ought to do at home: Explain the human body, sexuality, and the ramifications and consequences of sexual behavior,” Kuliesyte said.
Her association issued a report this year on sex education at both secondary schools and universities. The research showed that most secondary school students did not seek advice about intimate matters. University students were four times as likely to do so.
“The gap clearly pinpoints insufficient sex education in secondary schools,” said Kuliesyte, whose organization provides lectures and shows educational videos at schools when invited.
And while this could just as easily reflect teenagers’ reluctance to broach personal matters with teachers, young people also say sex education is weak.
“Definitely, school was not the place where I learned about these things,” said 20-year-old Alfredas Pumpulis of Palanga, a resort town in western Lithuania. “I believe most of the teachers, especially the senior ones, were too shy to talk about sex. I didn’t find out about it from my parents, either.”
Pumpulis said he learned about sex online and through friends, and that he would welcome better curriculum in schools.
UNDER THE EU SPOTLIGHT
While Lithuania’s sex education is being questioned from within, the country is poised to put its traditionalist spin on sexuality on display for the rest of Europe as it takes on the rotating, six-month European Union presidency on 1 July.
The Lithuanian parliament has strongly backed a new law to ban abortions – except in cases of rape, incest, or health complications. Other pending legislation seeks to ban sex changes and place administrative sanctions on “homosexual propaganda,” such as expressions of support for a gay lifesytle.
To many open-minded Lithuanians, this is an embarrassment, especially when they’re in the European spotlight.
“It’s a slap in the face for Lithuania, the European Union, and European values, as well as a deliberate infringement of the Lithuanian constitution stemming from pandering to the influential Catholic Church and the uneducated population,” said Marija Ausrine Pavilioniene, a well-known legislator, human rights activist, and professor. “The parliamentarians could have hardly come up with another set of more detrimental [bills] to harm Lithuanan interests, especially ahead of the EU presidency.”
Considering the distinctly non-progressive political winds and other obstacles, educators wonder if the Ministry of Education and Science will ever overhaul the 2006 sex education guidelines in order to modernize school curriculum.
“Honestly, even the 11th- and 12th-graders get only snippets of sex education from what are formally called ‘sex education programs,’ ” Aleksandravicius said. “Frankly, I hardly [teach the programs] because they’re too short and superficial.
One program for female students, Aleksandravicius recalled, merely requires that girls watch a series of instructive slides. Judging by the content, he concluded, the curriculum aims to discourage sex rather than explain the mechanics of sexuality and the complex issue of intimacy.
“I really believe the attitude toward sex education in school has to be completely different. Engaging students in discussions and creating an atmosphere of trust – is that possible at school today? No,” he said, shaking his head. “This is very bad, as the street and the web fill the void for students. I really would not like my kids to rely on that kind of information.”
At the Education Ministry, however, the 2006 guidelines will suffice. They “are not subject to change in the near future,” the ministry said in an email. “The schools themselves are entitled to [cover] sex education in a wide format, as they see appropriate for their students.”
Rasa Taraskeviciute, a psychiatrist practicing in Klaipeda, said that, based on her professional experience, Lithuania’s young people are ill-prepared for the psychological implications of sexual discovery.
“From all visits related to psychiatric problems, I’d say a whopping 70 percent have something to do with [sex-related] problems, which often derive from dissatisfaction, incompatibility, and lack of knowledge,” she said.
Taraskeviciute said that even she, an experienced mental health specialist, has trouble cracking a patient’s shell of mistrust and shame that accompanies intimate subjects.
“For many people, even from a younger generation, the topic is still taboo,” she observed, adding that growing up with such attitudes contributes to psychiatric problems in adulthood.
One of the ways some educators are trying to break this barrier is by embracing programs such as Gender Loops, which was introduced in 2006 in Germany, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, and Turkey with the aim of building awareness of gender differences and fostering tolerance among even very young children.
The project envisioned, among other things, teaching boys what it was like to be a girl, and vice versa, through cross-dressing – an idea that faced vocal opposition in Lithuania.
“Despite the uproar, I do believe these kinds of projects are beneficial for a single reason: they would instill empathy toward the other gender and maybe defuse the aggression Lithuanians are often known for,” Taraskeviciute said.
But Loreta Zuliene, a kindergarten teacher in the southern town of Alytus, called such efforts extreme.
“Just stop talking about the Gender Loops baloney. Look around: our men are getting more and more feminine, even if they don’t participate in ambivalence projects like Gender Loops,” she said. “Such gender roles-mixing projects only lead to confusion. … ”
Instead, she said, students in Alytus learn about what makes boys and girls different, but only when they’re seen as ready: “We do talk about things from time to time in a very age-appropriate and delicate manner.”
Zuliene noted that even in kindergarten, there are intimacy issues children and their teachers have to deal with.
“When we suddenly noticed 5-year-olds kissing similar-aged girls, we started wondering what had caused these emotions to surface. It turned out that the kids were watching a trendy soap opera with lots of kisses and hugs,” Zuliene recalled, adding, “How can you resist TV’s influence?”
And while she echoed the psychiatrist’s point that some form of sex education is needed, even in kindergarten, “it has to be about teaching kids to respect one another, and especially the opposite gender … not about how a boy must learn how to put a skirt on.”