Years ago, Poles would apparently blush when they came to one tick-box on customs and immigration forms: sex. Embarrassed at these foreigners’ bald intrusion into the darkest sphere of their lives – because how else would you have sex if not with the lights out? – they would leave the box blank, writing instead a plain “no!”
This may only have been an urban legend, but it captured Poles’ deep unease about public discussion of sexual matters. A flick through today’s magazines might suggest that that Poland is long gone. Today, young Poles flood color magazines with letters, asking what the right proportions of a penis should be, what the best contraceptive on the market is, and whether it is better to use two condoms at once rather than just one.
Some see this is the vivid sign of Poland’s depravation. Others argue that it is the result of something that connects communist and post-communist Poland: a failure to provide compulsory sex education at school. Not receiving “proper” information about human sexuality at school, runs this argument, teenagers are turning to their peers, the media, and the Internet.
The reason sex largely remains off the syllabus is because there is no agreement about what a “proper” sex education should be. When the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) won a landslide victory in the 2001 elections, compulsory sex education was one of its flagship proposals. But, as it prepares for elections on 25 September and a landslide defeat, it has next to nothing to show for its original plans, very much to the disappointment of its voters and to the satisfaction of conservatives.
What to Say?
Sexual education, or preparation for family life – different names that reflect the difference in stances on this issue – go to the heart of the political divide between Poland’s traditionally socially conservative right and its relatively liberal left, and the relationship between church and state.
This division has ensured that no agreement has ever been reached on a possible school syllabus. Whether any lessons are given is currently up to individual schools and, often, individual teachers.
For right-wing politicians and Catholic circles, the textbooks produced by the well-known sexologists Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz and Zbigniew Izdebski are warped by liberalism and moral permissiveness. In turn, the textbooks written by Teresa Krol or Marina Ombach, closer to the teaching of the Catholic Church and apparently more widely used in Polish schools, are accused of presenting a distorted, ideologically laden view of sexuality. Left-wing critics deride Krol’s book for denouncing artificial contraception as harmful, for instance, as well as for taking a strong anti-abortion line.
The books from the two sides of the barricade also differ in language. While “liberal” books openly (explicitly, critics would say) use sexual terminology, “conservative” books have been criticized for disguising the subject with metaphors.
Both sides believe they offer a rounded view of sex and human relations. “The pro-family version does not avoid biology, but it attempts to account for multiple aspects of this side of life. That is why it integrates physiology, medicine, sexology, social issues, morality, and ethics,” Krol says of her own textbook. For his part, Izdebski says that “in order to understand our sexuality, we need not just sexology, but also medicine, biology, and psychology.”
But the fundamental differences between the textbooks ensure that strong words fly. Krol dismisses the “left-liberal” version of sexual education with the claim that its “main principle is ‘you can do whatever you want as long as the other person agrees’ ” and as being focused on physiology and sex itself. Izdebski, for his part, is scornful of Krol’s focus on morality, saying that “the only thing a growing kid needs is information, not some collection of moral wishful thinking.”
Mum’s the Word
With both sides accusing the other of putting ideology first, the debate over sex education has been stuck in an impasse. And in the absence of any agreement on the content of sex education, Krol believes the subject simply should not be compulsory, since mandatory classes could infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children in agreement with their own world view.
So if the inability to settle on subjects or on terminology has pushed discussion about sex out of the classroom, where is it being discussed? Conservatives argue it is being discussed where it primarily belongs – at home.
But, argues Izdebski, Polish teenagers are unlikely to have their parents talk to them about sexual life. Figures from an international survey this year (conducted by the market-research agency TNS OBOP) suggest he may be right: only a small majority of Polish teenagers said they confided in their mothers (57 percent) and far fewer turn to their fathers (29 percent). In all, 28 percent claimed their parents seldom talk to them. Nearly half said their parents were very controlling and treated them as if they were younger than their actual age, both factors that may inhibit discussion about sex.
Nor perhaps would older generations be comfortable talking about the subject. A sense of shame remains strong, and few parents will have learned about sex from their own parents. Nor would they necessarily be able to provide good information. “I don’t know much myself. I don’t know how to explain to my daughter what contraception is,” one woman told the newspaper Trybuna this April. “And I don’t know how I could make her go and see a gynecologist. I don’t see one myself.”
Factors like that explain why the young are turning to the media and why “the need for education is enormous,” said Wanda Nowicka, the head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a non-governmental organization advocating compulsory sex education. “The level of knowledge about human sexuality and reproductive health is embarrassingly low in Poland,” Nowicka told Trybuna.
How low was demonstrated on 2 September when Nowicka’s group presented to the press a selection of letters sent to it by teenagers from across Poland.
“Is it possible to become pregnant in ways other than sex?” wrote one teenager. “I’ve read that in some magazine it is possible and now I’m at a loss because I have the symptoms of pregnancy but have never had sex!”
The debate over sex education is becoming increasingly urgent because trends are moving in a direction that disturbs both sides of the debate. The average age of sexual initiation in Poland is now 18 years and four months for men and 19 years and one month for women, according to research conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center in 2002. By international standards, this is reasonably late. But the average age is falling. In the group aged 15-16, 19 percent had their first sexual experiences behind them, an increase of four percentage points over the course of four years. Among 17- and 18-year olds, the figure was 51 percent, an increase of seven points over the same period.
For conservatives, this is evidence of the impact of modern, predominantly liberal culture. For them, sex education would merely strengthen that culture and lead young people to start their sex lives early. However, World Health Organization research suggests the opposite – that sex education generally delays sexual initiation as well as lowering the number of teenage pregnancies.
For Aleksandra Jozefowska of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, teenage pregnancies are a key reason why “there’s a great need to talk about sexual education and do something. It is simply because we don’t have sexual education that we’re hearing about so many tragedies from young people.”
In one letter cited by the group, a 19-year-old woman wrote, “I’m seven months pregnant and I don’t want this baby. I don’t even know if it’s healthy because I haven’t seen a doctor. I hate myself because I wasted my life and let my parents down.”
Another letter read: “My pregnancy was neither planned nor wanted. I’ve made up my mind and I don’t agree to the fact that the country I live in doesn’t allow me to decide in such a personal matter. I need help or information about where in Poland I can have this problem solved. I can’t go abroad now.”
A thread running through these and other letters is young people’s difficulty in discussing sexual issues with their parents, precisely the people conservatives argue should be a conduit of information.
For this organization, letters as desperate as those are reason enough to press for the introduction of sexual education. But it also advocates a broader look at questions of gender. “Sexual education teaches partnership of the sexes, promotes equality of men and women, teaches respect for women’s sexual rights,” argues Nowicka.
Illiterate, Emotionally and Sexually?
At the moment, sex education remains an optional subject at school, taught by random teachers either at 7 a.m. before the main teaching day begins or after other lessons have ended.
Jozefowska is heading an initiative that tries to help teachers concerned about the issue, by organizing lessons in schools that agree to let her and her people in. “A lot depends on teachers. If we meet a sympathetic teacher of Polish or math, then they can give us their teaching time,” she says. “But then again, some aren’t at all sympathetic. In effect, we rarely manage to make a continuous effort – we do our work in dribs and drabs.”
With support for the SLD and other left-wing parties running at barely 10 percent combined, proponents of compulsory sex education are not optimistic. The situation is lamentable, argues an SLD senator, Zdzislawa Janowska. “The left did not do what it had in its program and I’m very sorry to admit that neither the liberalization of the abortion law nor a common sex education curriculum were implemented,” she says, adding that “the left traded those issues for the Church’s support in the European Union accession referendum.”
A convincing right-wing victory could theoretically enable Krol’s concept of sex education – or “preparation for family life” – to be introduced throughout Polish schools. But in practice sex education in whatever guise is a non-issue for right-wing politicians, left off the agenda for years and left out of party manifestoes this time as well.
Krol herself believes that sex should be discussed in school and her description of her own attitude to sex suggests that those classes would lift some of the shame and embarrassment from sexual matters. Her book, she says, “does not contain anything that would suggest that sex is bad. It’s not. It’s wonderful. But it all depends on how, when, with whom, and where.”
But others on the right may be less willing to celebrate the joy of sex or talk about it. In 2004, Krol’s rival textbook writer, Zbigniew Izdebski, found himself at the center of a revealing controversy over his part in an international research project aimed at determining the scale of sexual violence experienced by 17- and 18-year-olds.
The research found that 16 percent of Polish teenagers were forced to make an “eye contact or physical contact of sexual character against their will” and another 18 percent were forced into various forms of sexual contact, including intercourse. But attention in the Catholic media centered on questions such as “Have you ever masturbated?” and “How many times have you offered sex in return for money, food, clothes, cosmetics?” and questions asking whether teens agreed or disagreed that “some 13-year-olds are mature enough so it is nothing bad if they have sexual intercourse with an adult” and that “many boys subconsciously want to rape a girl.”
“I think the research never aimed at ascertaining what young people think, but it gave Professor Izdebski an opportunity to implement elements of a plan to make young people have intercourse early,” said one Catholic bishop, Stanislaw Stefanek. “This is indoctrination, propaganda, not science.”
No surprise, then, that Bishop Stefanek opposes Izdebski’s textbook. But Stefanek’s conclusions go much further. “We know what the needs of the young are,” Stefanek argues. “They don’t need sex education, but a defense against its impudence, which destroys the psyche of young people.”
Such attitudes help ensure that many Polish children go through school without any formal discussion about relationships between the sexes, let alone about sex. “You finish school knowing how to spell, but without any idea about how to live with people, solve conflicts, negotiate,” writes the Polish author Manuela Gretkowska in her latest book ***Europejka*** (A European Woman). “Instead of basic knowledge that could help you avoid bad relationships and life’s disasters, you are getting sexual education for the emotionally illiterate. Okay, you should know how to put on a condom, but it’s equally important to know who you should do it to.”
It might not seem like much to Gretkowska, but many young Poles might be grateful even for that basic knowledge.