Sexuality is everywhere: in books, movies, on television, in online videos and games, in advertisements, on the web.

It has an impact on the way we dress or talk with other people, in our way of thinking about and imagining things. Sexuality is a part of us. It is probably difficult to find another domain of human life that is as loaded with controversial issues, stereotypes, prejudices, norms, and taboos.

Human sexuality is a complex issue

In different attempts to define this term, two aspects are usually taken into account: biological (essentialist approach) and socio-cultural (constructivist approach). Although sexuality has an important biological component - usually related to the imperative of reproduction - other components, such as personal needs and desires, emotions, practices and identities, are of equal, and sometimes greater, importance. The World Health Organisation defines sexuality as:

(…) a central aspect of being human throughout life (that) encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.”75

One of the first pieces of sociological research to undermine the understanding of human sexuality as something invariable was done in the United States by Alfred Kinsey and his team, in the late forties and early fifties of the 20th century. The results of this large-scale research were shocking, as they showed large discrepancies between social norms and expectations and actual human sexual behaviours and practices. Masturbation and sex between people of the same sex turned out to be common and treated as natural. The study contributed to a wider understanding of human sexuality beyond biology and physiology.

The idea of fixed categories of sexuality, as with the idea of unchanging, essential gender identities, is undermined by histories of sexuality that show changing practices and values attached to forms of sexual behaviour between people. One of the most famous of these is the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his three volume History of Sexuality. In volume 1, for instance, he shows that before ‘homosexuality’ became categorised as a form of sexual identity in the nineteenth century, sexual relations between men were regarded, in different contexts, as an act that may be celebrated or punished, but that did not define the identities of those involved. In his book, Foucault also showed how sexuality was determined throughout history and how it became a tool of power. His theories influenced both queer and feminist ideas and movements.

Views on human sexuality have changed throughout history, and sexuality is today increasingly seen as a dimension of life that everyone can define and shape according to their own particular needs. However, every society establishes certain norms in relation to sexual behaviours, and these are learnt in the process of socialisation. These norms are often built into laws that prohibit or restrict certain sexual behaviours. For example, in every society there is a legal ‘age of consent’: the age that people need to reach, in order to be considered capable of making a conscious decision to engage in sexual relationships. In most countries, this can be found in the criminal code, which makes it a crime to engage in any sexual act with a person below the age of consent. This age varies from country to country, but is usually between 14 to 18 years of age. Sexual violence is another example of a social norm built into legislation: sex is only legal if it is consensual. Practices which force a partner or partners to engage in sexual practices or behaviours, or which cause harm (psychological or physical) are punishable by law.

There are many issues related to human sexuality, such as sex work, pornography or abortion, that lead to heated debate. Such issues will always be subject to dispute, as they touch upon values and established social norms, which can never be neutral: for certain people, they will seem natural and important for preserving the social order, while for others, they will seem unfair, and a restriction of their autonomy and right to self-determination.

Sexuality education and youth work

Sexuality education covers a number of issues that are relevant for children and young people, relating to biological, emotional and social aspects of sexuality. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) defines a rights-based approach to comprehensive sexuality education as something that “seeks to equip young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to determine and enjoy their sexuality – physically and emotionally, individually and in relationships. It views ‘sexuality’ holistically and within the context of emotional and social development. It recognizes that information alone is not enough. Young people need to be given the opportunity to acquire essential life skills and develop positive attitudes and values.”82 The IPFF defines seven essential components of sexuality education: gender, sexual and reproductive health and HIV, sexual rights and sexual citizenship, pleasure, violence, diversity and relationships.

Sexuality education is, most of all, about creating self-awareness about the human body, learning how to create and sustain healthy relationships, improving self-confidence, learning acceptance, and developing attitudes of tolerance and non-discrimination. However, there are many places where sexual education is either not provided to young people or it is purely informative, focusing on the biological aspects of human sexuality, while issues such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and even gender-based violence may be treated as taboo, and not talked about or labelled as “bad” or “immoral”. Such an approach to sexuality education does not contribute to young people’s well-being and may even lead to dramatic consequences for those who do not accept or identify with norms that have been imposed on them. In cases where the formal education system does not provide young people with sexuality education, they tend to look for information on the Internet or from their peers.

However, this can lead to misleading information, as online sources often reduce the question of sexuality to sex practices only, and sexual partners are often objectified. There are differing opinions as to whether sexual education should be done by youth workers, or whether it should rather be left to professionals in the field of human sexuality. However, youth workers are often in a position to provide important assistance to young people in talking through issues related to sexuality and answering their concerns. This can be done through informal discussions or in organised workshops that deal with such topics as negotiation and communication skills, antidiscrimination and human rights education.

The Council of Europe has produced educational resources related to sexuality education that can be used in working with children and young people.