Russia's Debate: How Much Sex-Ed in Schools?

Some want students to get more information; Communists and Orthodox church say no.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Larisa Chestyakova,the director of a health clinic in this small town, is seeing off a dozen seventh-graders who've come for a talk on sex education. While she strokes their hair and pats their shoulders, a hint of worry passes over her face.

It's hard to understand why at first. As they sit in classes all morning, the identically ponytailed girls and the rowdy boys still seem to be children, removed from the complexities of dating. But later, one wispy 14-year-old girl approaches Dr. Chestyakova and asks for a brochure on birth control.

"I told her, 'Sure, if you really need it,' and she said, 'I do,' " Chestyakova says, her brow furrowing and her eyes on something far away. "If she isn't having sex, she's about to start soon. We have to keep an eye on her."

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The fact that Chestyakova, living 140 miles south of Moscow in the sleepy heartland of Russia, routinely meets such youngsters is a sign of the far-reaching sexual revolution under way in this country. And like other revolutions in Russia, this one, too, has done great damage, especially among the young.

Rates of pregnancy and abortions among teenagers have increased from a decade ago, and sexually transmitted diseases among teens have skyrocketed, with syphilis alone rising by 3,000 percent over the past five years, according to the Russian health ministry.

Most Russians agree that sex education could help. But the search for the right approach has disintegrated into a bitter dispute, with the battle lines and rhetoric reminiscent of similar fights in the United States.

One side here favors an approach that stresses delaying sex but also provides information about birth control, while the other side supports programs based on abstinence.

Because of the controversy, a long-awaited sex-ed program for Russia's schools has yet to appear. As a result, Russian children who walk into school this week face tough decisions without such guidance.

Perhaps the dispute over sex education in Russia seems familiar because post-Soviet Russia itself is becoming more like the West. The Soviet state repressed sexuality. Russians still joke about a Soviet woman who, a decade ago, said on a joint American-Soviet television broadcast, "We have no sex."

But with the end of the Soviet Union, Russia now has sex, a lot of it. Sex aids are sold alongside boxes of tea in street kiosks, pornography next to serious newspapers in the subway. There are no laws prohibiting prostitution, and major urban streets usually feature a chorus line of teenage prostitutes after dark.

If Russian teenagers face the same pressures as Western youths to have sex early, Russian parents, who grew up during the Soviet era, are much more reluctant and ill-equipped to talk about sex than Westerners. "It's a very dangerous situation. On the street level, there's incredible licentiousness, permissiveness," Marianna Besrukikh, head of the Developmental Physiology Institute at the Russian Academy of Education, says. "But at the same time, you can't talk about it at home."

A partial solution to the information vacuum has been to offer sex education through private organizations such as Chestyakova's center in Tula.

Hers is one of more than 50 regional branches of the Moscow-based Russian Family Planning Association, a six-year-old nonprofit group that receives support from the Russian government and the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation.

A small, elegant woman in high heels, Chestyakova went into family planning after years of treating women who had become infertile as a result of numerous abortions or sexually transmitted diseases.

ON a rainy summer morning, a local day camp brings campers for a series of talks about health and sex education. The 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls go off with separate instructors.

The girls' instructor gently tells them that while it's great that some of them are going steady, they should hold off on having sex. She encourages them to visit the center, but stresses that their mothers are the best resource.

At this, 13-year-old Katya shakes her head and shoots back: "No, it's different with our moms. They grew up in a different time. They had a very closed childhood. Things are more open now. There's movies, magazines. If I want to know something, it's much easier for me to talk to my friends."

In the three years that the Tula center has been open, about 6,000 schoolchildren - 57 percent of the city's students - have attended seminars here. The center also provides medical and counseling services daily, though it doesn't perform abortions.

Chestyakova's efforts haven't gone unnoticed, though the center is discreetly tucked away on the top floor of a brick building. In May, the local papers ran stories that claimed her clinic was corrupting children. The local prosecutor's office sent investigators, who found no wrongdoing.

The Family Planning Association's centers can't cope with all of Russia's early teens. And Russian schools teach only the basics about puberty and reproduction, just as they did in the 1950s. So, three years ago, the education ministry decided to develop a new sex-education program.

But the ministry made serious blunders that have delayed change. Last fall, for example, 1,500 questionnaires were sent to schoolchildren to develop one program. Written by sociologists used to dealing with adults, the surveys posed such explicit questions that some teachers threatened to file suit with local prosecutors.

UNESCO provided some funding for that ill-conceived effort, heightening suspicions among many that the West is out to ruin Russia, says Irina Ivaschenko, an aide in parliament and an opponent of sex education. "There is a feeling now that first the West dumped its pornography on us, its diseases, and now they want to spread theories that have failed over there and birth control that would keep the Russian population down," she says.

The alliances against sex education are odd ones. One group consists of old Communists, nostalgic for the Soviet era's enforced primness. The other force is the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which advocates abstinence.

"It's true that we've made mistakes," says Yelena Chepurnikh, the deputy education minister responsible for curriculum, "and because of that, our kids continue to suffer."

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