Relationship and sex education. An overview with a closer look at the puberty phase

By M Michael Zech, March 2022

Sex education is not a separate subject at Waldorf schools, even if special lesson sequences are as a rule repeatedly devoted to it at all age levels. Due to its complexity, it is a cross-curricular component of the overall educational mission.

Photo: © ABRAHAM GONZALEZ FERNANDEZ / photocase.de

The complexity of the topic carries the risk that dealing with it is seen as optional and arbitrary. Both parents and students often complain about the inadequate treatment of issues related to sexuality, gender identities and partnership. A one-off and short treatment, e.g. by calling in outside expertise for a single sex education unit, is by no means sufficient.

In Waldorf education, the subject area of sex education is not only understood in the sense of classical enlightenment concepts but in the context of personality development, i.e. as an educational issue. In this sense, sex education begins in early childhood and necessarily leads to a self-regulated learning process in adolescence. Living with our own sexuality relates to dealing responsibly with ourselves, with other people and, despite the decoupling of our sex life from the reproductive process, nevertheless always also the responsibility for human life. Therefore a school culture encompassing all stages of development must be established which ensures that this area of education is actually and competently dealt with in all year groups.

This also includes the qualification or further training of the teachers in charge. In many cases, it has proven useful to include the expertise of midwives, doctors and counsellors to prevent bullying, risks to child welfare, and for media literacy.

Sex education and relationship education connect in many ways to the values of family cultures. Traditions, religious views, good and bad experiences, i.e. personal impressions, play a role here. In terms of cultural diversity, the education sector therefore requires active cooperation between parents and teachers. As a rule, regardless of situational occasions, the opportunity to explore the topic among adults should be offered at parents' evenings several months before it is dealt with in school.

Since development and competence acquisition in this area are strongly influenced by the surrounding conditions (behaviour and lived values of the adult world, language, media, youth culture, crime, design of the environment), no standardised models can be given for sex and partnership education. Competence development in relation to sexuality requires planned, preventive, preparatory and situational action as well as coordination between school and home. The questions of the adolescents or the problems that arise in their world and concern sexuality must of course always be taken up promptly.

Sex education includes the processes of gender identification, the development of social and communicative competences and of individual competence (always in relation to capacity to act).

In terms of holistic education, three levels must be taken into account which play a role at every age:

  • the body as the instrument and basis of identification (aspects: health; hygiene; awareness; and gender identification)
  • the emotional and social processes (aspects: listening, to oneself and to the respective partners; ability to meet; empathy; care; tenderness; communication; ability to relate; but also politeness and respect).
  • the spiritual (ethical) questions about a person's own identity (aspects: Who am I? Who are you? What does the encounter demand? What is my destiny? What is my responsibility?)

Since sex education accompanies the maturation process of adolescents, i.e. their personality development, timeliness, appropriateness and interdisciplinary responsibility apply to it notwithstanding all the necessary flexibility (Maris/Zech 2006).

A range of concerns means that every discussion concerning sexuality, gender identity, partnership and relationship demands a way of dealing with it that is committed to the principles of mindfulness as well as protection and sensitivity with regard to intimacy.

In what follows, goals with regard to the individual development phases will be set out for guidance.

Puberty

The period between the ages of 12 and 16 is when puberty really happens. When Rudolf Steiner uses the term "earthly maturity" to refer not only to the processes of sexual maturity, this means – and this certainly corresponds to current research findings – that alongside the biological ability to reproduce, the emancipation of the inner life, which begins to rely on its own cognitive ability, is also included in the characterisation of this phase of development.

Therefore, especially from the age of 14/15, competence development is increasingly based on cognition. In other words, personal responsibility and self-control must now be applied under the conditions of awakened sexual feelings (urges) and the possibility of the person's own capacity for insight. Be it contraception, hygiene requirements or relationship questions, the personal and social consequences depend on the decisions taken or to be taken by the adolescents. Sex education in school must serve to build up such ability to take responsibility, that is individual competence. Nowhere else is the arena for personal experience so connected with biographical consequences for the adolescents and their partners.

Physical aspects

In school years 7 and 8, adolescents must acquire differentiated knowledge about the physical aspects of sexuality. This includes not only knowledge about the physical organisation and a natural and relaxed, because perceptive, relationship with our own body and sexuality, but also knowledge about the techniques of how sexual experiences can be had or sexual relationships can be lived pleasantly, safely and controllably with regard to their possible consequences. Without associating sexuality exclusively with protective aspects, adolescents should be able to protect their health and know about contraceptive techniques. This also includes the competence to find and, if necessary, consult information and advice.

Such knowledge only becomes relevant for the adolescents' own actions if it is dealt with repeatedly, i.e. also in the following school years, and communicated in a trusting atmosphere in such a way that the knowledge connects to the young people's lifeworld. Appropriate time must be planned for this in the main lesson plan and in the subject lesson section.

Social and communicative aspects

When life and their development mean that from the age of 12 adolescents begin to experiment with relationships, including the option of sexual experiences, out of love or the joy of discovery, this presupposes the development of communication skills (discussion about what the participants want or reject / dating / discretion / openness to be able to talk about questions of contraception and infection, etc.). The development of communication skills is therefore of central importance in this developmental phase.

Without stereotyping, the different physical and mental experiences of the female and male human being should be captured to such an extent that respectful interaction with each other, but especially with partners of the opposite sex, is possible. Knowledge about homosexuality and respectful handling of individual lifestyles or gender identities and needs should be predisposed. The ability to distance ourselves from social pressures or actions that we do not want to follow should be established in an open atmosphere. The awareness that sexual acts occur in the context of maintaining relationships, reliability, trust and love can become part of our inner life through reading matter, biographical accounts, conversations, but also through drama projects. Often this means building trust in the desires that can be perceived in ourselves.

A particular challenge is the individually and socially appropriate use of media, because for adolescents a few clicks are enough to be confronted with sexting, pornography and offers of sexual services. Not only the legal situation, but also giving rise to humiliation, discrimination and abuse of people by turning them into commodities and objects should be discussed. The danger of putting (our own) pictures on the internet and thus making them available for abuse, or of actively participating in actions that are personally damaging and violate the law when disseminating the pictures of others, must also be a topic of instruction.

Ethical and action-oriented aspects

Young people at this age actually know what is good for them, even if they cannot always put their knowledge into practice. Trust in their mostly present moral standards can develop into autonomous action (individual competence and self-control). The conditions for this are access to information and creating opportunities to articulate semi-conscious and unconscious personal understanding. Verbalising attitudes and intentions often has a self-fulfilling effect.

Since from this age onwards sexuality is often practised at or after parties under the influence of alcohol, drugs and peer pressure, the problems of disinhibition and loss of control must be addressed objectively in relation to the tension this creates with a responsibly formed relationship so that moral competence can be developed preventively. Ultimately the young person is now involved in the existential decision about life, the non-occurrence or termination of life, but also about shaping a relationship (which is often felt as being dramatically fateful at this age).

In other words, the competences associated with this are formed through life experiences and through the opportunity to understand them, but also to be able to process them emotionally. Ethical competence comes from perceiving our own actions as such and being able to justify them to ourselves. It also includes addressing situations where people's dignity is violated by sexualised advertising, pornography and commercialised sexual services.

About the author: Prof Dr M Michael Zech, Waldorf teacher, since 1992 national and international lecturer in Waldorf education, history and literature. Since 1998 member of the advisory board of the Educational Research Centre at the German Association of Waldorf Schools; 2006 director of the Teacher Training Seminar for Waldorf Education in Kassel; 2009 member in the Hague Circle – International Forum for Steiner Waldorf Education. Professor of cultural studies and their teaching methodology at Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences in Bonn/Alfter. Director of the cultural studies section at the Institute of Subject Teaching Methodology in Kassel.

Literature: B. Maris, B./ M. Zech (ed): Sexualkunde in der Waldorfpädagogik, Stuttgart 2006

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