Seventeen year-old Abd Rahman Loutfi first heard “STD” while watching an episode of The Simpsons. Thinking it was some kind of joke, he googled the term out of curiosity. His first source of sexual education was, thus, Wikipedia.
As a student at the conservative Makassed School of Sidon, Abd never had any real exposure to sex ed. He and his friends learned about sex by telling each other “dirty abul-Abd jokes” and watching pornography. “When it comes to sexual education in Lebanon, it’s all accidental,” Abd told NOW Lebanon.
Abd, despite being from a privileged class, is just one of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese students whose only access to information about sex is by picking up bits and pieces of information from various unreliable sources such as the internet, television and pure hearsay. In the absence of a strong, integrated sex education program in Lebanese schools, the bulk of the younger generation has been left wholly ignorant about many very serious issues, including sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), protection and prevention, abortion and rape.
From a sociological perspective, Dr. Samir Khalaf, Director of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University of Beirut, told NOW Lebanon that “[Sexual education] is the taboo of our culture, and we ought to address it and introduce it at elementary schools…. Our culture ought to be ready for this.”
One step forward, two steps back
In 1997, the Ministry of Education revised Lebanon’s national curriculum, a decision based on of three years of meticulous research conducted by the Center for Educational Research and Development, which reviewed the needs of youth in the context of the classroom. Among other changes, a unit on reproductive health was added to the Life Sciences curriculum for 12-14 year-olds.
The decision, however, proved controversial. Mounting pressure on the government from religious circles, particularly Hezbollah and the Druze Association of the Al-Orfan Al-Tawhidiyyah, led to the issuance of Presidential Decree 2066 in 2000, which ruled that the newly-added reproductive health units should be removed from the national curriculum. The main arguments used in favor of the move were that the subject of sex education, particularly at such a young age, should be left to the family and religious community, and that talking about it could promote promiscuity. However, the decision to remove reproductive health from the curriculum caused a great deal of uproar among many academics, doctors, psychologists, therapists, clergy, and civil society, prompting a debate over the need to integrate an efficient program of sex education into schools.
Although both public and private Lebanese schools must follow the national curriculum, the latter may teach additional subjects and choose their own books. As such, many private schools have adopted watered-down versions of “Reproductive Health.”
Let’s talk about sex
Attempts by private schools to fill in the gaps in the state curriculum are varied. In general, parochial schools approach the subject of sex ed less directly than their secular counterparts.
For example, the National Evangelical Institute for Girls and Boys in Sidon provides lessons on HIV/AIDS and STDs, and methods of contraception as part of second-secondary (eleventh grade) biology classes. The St. Joseph School in Qornet Shehwan offers monthly sessions where sexual education issues are discussed with students. Although the sessions are called “Awareness” or “Knowledge about Human Development,” in practice, they include most of the aspects of sex education; they are co-taught by a biologist, a nurse, and a clergy member.
The Makassed schools offer their students supplementary information packets, provided by the Makassed health services, in the form of a booklet entitled “the Awareness Package,” which targets adolescents and deals with issues such as sexual health and orientation, prevention and protection. However, more conservative parochial schools, such as the Mustapha School in Beirut, steer clear of sexual education altogether.
Like many other secular schools, the American Community School of Beirut, has integrated sex ed more directly into its curriculum. Tenth grade students receive general sexual education through their health classes, but the learning process starts earlier, with sixth graders given lessons on puberty and human development, and eighth graders taught about STDs. One ACS high school unit includes discussions on risky behavior and lifestyle choices.
Eastwood College in Mansourieh treats the subject through a combination of biology lessons, talks by the school counselor, and a special “Skills for Adolescents” class, where lessons on issues such as STDs, HIV/AIDS and contraceptives are given to students in grades 7-10.
Too little, too late?
Serious efforts have also come from some NGOs. The Standing Committee on Reproductive Health Including AIDS (SCORA), a branch of the Lebanese Medical Students’ International Committee, offers school talks across Lebanon that attempt to raise awareness through peer education. The group, which is composed of medical students from the American University of Beirut and the University of Balamand, tours schools to lecture on HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, rape, abortion and other topics having to do with reproductive health.
Labib Zakka, a member of SCORA, told NOW Lebanon that the group is often surprised by the level of ignorance encountered. “There’s a big gap among the different sub-classes of society. For example, it’s strange in sessions when people don’t even know how sexual intercourse takes place or where babies come from.” After the talks, many students approach the SCORA members one-on-one with questions regarding sensitive issues such as masturbation, risky behavior, drug use and unprotected sex.
However, NGOs like SCORA often face restrictions imposed by the schools they visit – particularly religious schools, which may, for example, prefer that the group not show images of genitalia, distribute condoms or speak directly about sexuality.
According to Dr. Jean Dawood, principal of the National Evangelical Institute, NGO initiatives are not enough. “The lectures are always very temporary. Sexual education has to be installed in the program, and it has to be a complete package. When you have sex education, you also need to have people backing it up, like counselors… students will come to talk, because you’re opening Pandora’s Box.”
As Dawood points out, numerous changes would have to be made for a national sexual education program to be instituted. “The government should train staff, and it should open departments in every major city to support people who need help,” Dawood suggested. He believes that the change must recognize young people’s needs, and incorporate qualified staff into schools rather than simply tack reproductive health on to biology classes.
Though Dawood supports the implementation of nationwide obligatory sex education, he understands his limitations as a principal of one of Lebanon’s Evangelical schools, in addition to governmental restrictions. “To me it’s essential, but to them… we just need education and to place students in university.”
He also noted that negative attitudes toward sexual education come from “the pretense that the youth can’t control themselves: If they become aware of it, then what are they going to do? It’s the same old story.”
Interestingly, some religious figures, like Sayyid Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, have said that they are not opposed to sex education in principle. However, they believe it should have limits, and must include the promotion of abstinence and an emphasis on the role of the family. The major concerns often raised by religious figures pertain to who would do the teaching, and how it would be done. As such, in order to build a national sex ed curriculum, different religious parties would have to agree on the outline of the main concepts and features of the program.
The current rector of the St. George School in Zalka, Simon Faddoul, expressed concerns to NOW Lebanon over reaching such an agreement. “In a vacuum, it should [be instituted on a national level], theoretically speaking,” conceded Faddoul. “But practically speaking, given the status of our curricula and our pedagogical status in Lebanon, I don’t think it should, because what to teach should be agreed upon by all faiths and all religions.”
Nonetheless, Faddoul agreed that sex education is necessary. “For sure, educationally, it’s needed. If we don’t teach our children about it and give them the correct facts today, then they’ll learn from their friends in a wrong way or from internet and TV.”
Coming of age
Abd believes that attempting to “hide” sexual education only makes it more of a taboo – and thus, more of a temptation. “What you’re not allowed to do or talk about, you really want to do.” And of course, an increasingly sexually-active youth combined with ignorance on the most basic levels makes for a very dangerous cocktail.
Hesitation around the subject is understandable, especially among conservative, religious circles. However, it is time they came to terms with the present reality in Lebanon: Young people have become more sexually active, and they need to be taught how to be responsible.
While many may argue that young people are better off learning about sex from family and clergy members, in practice, few turn to such figures to fill in the gaps. According to Dr. Khalaf, studies have shown that young Lebanese only rarely get their information on sex from Sheikhs and religious groups, and almost never from peers, parents or schools. “The largest number of youngsters in their teens and early twenties,” he lamented, “tell us that it’s the global media” that provides their sexual education.
Given the religious diversity of Lebanese society and the preponderance of parochial schools, the introduction of sexual education on a national level would be both complex and problematic. But the “programs” or “initiatives” offered by some private schools often present diluted forms of sex ed, and do not provide an adequate substitute for a comprehensive national sexual education program.
By avoiding the topic of sexual education, schools are putting students at greater risk, not protecting them. As long as the Lebanese fail to provide their youth with the information they need to make informed, responsible choices when it comes to sex, risky behavior – along with all its many consequences – will only continue to rise in the country.