How to Learn About Sex in Italy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a schoolbook can trigger another kind of sexual revolution.
Italian kids have always attended compulsory religion classes at school, learning about Jesus, reading the gospel, soaking up a parable or two that can shed light on faith. Bored to death, my buddies and I always tried to skip that seemingly endless hour. But now, increasingly relaxed mores and revealing fashions require classroom light to be shed on hotter, more slippery stuff normally handled by gynecologists, not teachers, especially in an obscurantist country like Italy.
So, let’s talk about sex — or, at least, let’s start.
“W L’Amore” — translated as “Hurrah, Love!” — is a new sex-education manual spreading rapidly across northern Italy. Local education authorities introduced it last year to some 3,000 pupils in 50 middle schools in 19 districts of the Emilia-Romagna region, and it’s expected to reach 20 more schools in 10 additional districts within the next few years. The ultimate goal is to place the book in the curricula of the entire region, according to the latest data from “W L’Amore” project organizers. The book’s future in other parts of the boot remain murky. Unlike most European countries, Italy does not have a national educational policy or legal framework when it comes to sex education. It’s up to individual schools to introduce the subject — and only if the families agree.
Schools are the labs of an individual’s future life. It’s where kids must be given the tools and knowledge to face sex.
Italian high school teacher Rosi Fraire
Don’t envision “Hurrah, Love!” as U.S.-style sex ed. While attending American schools, I remember playing with condoms, rubber penises and plastic vaginas as a box of contraceptives flew around the classroom. In contrast, “W L’Amore” is a simple guidebook on safe sex, with illustrations, case studies and Q&As. But in Italy, home to the Vatican and a very deeply rooted Catholic culture, the pilot project is considered revolutionary. Talking about sex in schools (from an academic point of view, leaving out what is whispered and practiced in bathrooms) still is seen as taboo, especially in the south, where traditions die hard. It’s all baffling to Paola Marmocchi, head of the “W L’Amore” project in Bologna. “I don’t see why all the hassle,” he says. “Our manual is not forced on schools, students or parents. They ask for it. Explaining to teenagers that one could be straight, gay, lesbian or bi doesn’t mean influencing his or her sexual orientation.”
Elsewhere in Europe, it’s another world. In Holland, sex ed is compulsory from the age of 4. France has introduced anti-AIDS tutorial lessons in classrooms, while Germany’s constitutional court has made sex ed compulsory in all schools. In Austria, parents join their children in the classroom for lessons called “Love Talks.” Danish teachers invite prostitutes and homosexuals into classrooms to share their experiences with students. In Italy, it would be like serial killers babysitting your child as part of a rehab program.
A major change, however, is underway in Italian society. According to health authorities, nearly 55 percent of 14-year-olds either get pregnant or rely on the morning-after pill, which has created a demand for more sex education. According to recent European studies, just 16 percent of Italian adolescent girls use condoms, compared to 41 percent in France. “Schools are the labs of an individual’s future life,” says high school teacher Rosi Fraire in Reggio Emilia. Fraire is the mother of a 14-year-old girl who attends courses where “W L’Amore” is studied. “It’s in classrooms that kids must be given the tools and knowledge to face sex, and this also means teaching them how to respect their bodies.”
Marmocchi says the questions that arise from studying “W L’Amore” are polarized by gender. Girls are more interested in the romance of their first time, while boys are more interested in the dimensions of their male attribute. But nearly all members of both genders share one thing in common: watching porno movies. Marmocchi asks, “Now, isn’t that worse than studying sex at school?”
Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi thinks so. Concerned that pornography alone is the worst possible sex-ed tutor, the 51-year-old adult-movie star launched a website last December to gather signatures for a petition to make sex education mandatory in Italian schools. “I wanted to launch this appeal because sex is a magnificent thing,” Siffredi wrote on the site. “I put forth my name and my experience. I make myself fully available to go into Italian schools and personally promote this initiative.” When the number of signatories reached 31,000, Siffredi wrote to education minister Stefania Giannini with his petition, which, of course, has yet to reach policymakers.
Proponents of the “W L’Amore” project are adding a second approach to sex ed that’s backed not just by regional educational bodies but also local medical units. The sex courses work like a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous session. Teens sit in a circle with teachers, doctors and psychologists and discuss their worries, desires, doubts and fears about sex, relating personal experiences and looking for advice. “The key is: Don’t be afraid or ashamed of what you say,” Marmocchi explains.
Winds of change also are blowing from St. Peter’s Basilica. Unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis appears to support this new trend of more openness about sex education. In a recent apostolic book Amoris Laetitia, the pope wrote that sexuality “is a marvelous gift that God donated to us” and defines sex ed as “love education and reciprocal donation,” with the caveat that sex ed does not all come down to safe sex and condoms. The pontiff believes sex is a matter of love and affection above all and should therefore be treated as such in schools.
The “W L’Amore” manual is not a condom vending machine, Marmocchi stresses. “All we do is give the basic know-how to pupils because knowledge, as in all other things, is power that can save teenagers when they face sex-related dangers or risks. The sexual skills, practice or orientation of each kid — that’s not for us to provide guidelines.”