Dr Iole Fontana is a political scientist and a researcher at the University of Catania. She has a PhD in Institutions, Politics and Policies and has been a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics and at the Université Hassan II in Casablanca. She has worked as a research intern for the Delegation of the European Union in Tunisia and is specialized on EU politics and Euro-Mediterranean relations. This case study is an extension of her pre-existing research for GenPol’s Can Education Stop Abuse policy paper.
Relationship and Sex Education (SRE) is now considered an essential tool to empower young people to stay physically and mentally healthy as well as to prevent gender-based violence, as GenPol’s recent policy paper has showed us. Yet, whereas the potential of education in this domain is widely acknowledged, comprehensive programs are still lacking. In Europe, students’ sex education remains a geographical lottery, with SRE initiatives remaining patchy across and inside countries. Italy is a case in point. As one of the few EU member states where sex education is not compulsory, to date, there has been no law on the matter. As such, SRE is still not part of any teaching and education ministerial program. The consequence is that initiatives and activities remain uneven across the country, and dependent on the willingness and financial availability of schools, associations and non-governmental organizations.
What SRE is…and what it is not.
According to the reports of the European Parliament (2013:10) and of the IPPF European Network (2007), SRE is the process of disseminating information, increasing awareness and providing young people with the essential knowledge to enjoy sexuality both physically and emotionally, individually as well as in relationships. To put it briefly, SRE is the result of sex education (the ‘S’ component) and relationship education (the ‘R’ component). The first addresses the biological aspects of reproduction and deals with contraception possibilities, prevention of teenage pregnancy and protection against diseases. The second is concerned with ethical, moral, psychological and emotional aspects of sexuality. In this sense, SRE is not ‘a simple mechanistic coverage of biological facts’ (IPPF, 2007:12). Rather, it links general topics on sexuality with emotions, relationship, consent and respect of the other. Yet, in many countries –Italy included- the ‘S’ and ‘R’ are not promoted in an integrated fashion, with initiatives addressing just one of the two dimensions.
Italy and SRE: a leap into a legislative vacuum
Convoluted discussions on the subject have often heated parliamentary debates (Forleo and Lucisano, 1980). Both right and left wing parties tabled several legislative proposals on SRE, yet none of them passed the discussion-stage and become formal law. This legislative vacuum stems from the preponderant role of the Vatican, which has traditionally questioned the responsibility of schools in this domain, relegating SRE to the domestic and family sphere. Moreover, the controversial reactions by parents and citizens have complicated the matter even further. As a glaring example, in many cases they have obstructed attempts to distribute in schools booklets on sex, gender issues and same sex relations. For these reasons, no fully-fledged policy framework was ever developed, with politicians and successive governments approaching the issue with great caution. The Education Plan approved by Matteo Renzi’s former government (the so-called ‘Good School Plan’ or ‘La Buona Scuola’) adopted in fact a very soft and generic stance, devoid of comprehensive SRE initiatives. Similarly, the manifesto of the current Five Stars-Lega Nord government fails to refer to the issue.
Who takes care of SRE in Italy?
Due to the lack of a proper legislative framework, institutions are not at the forefront of SRE activities. The Ministry of Education is not directly responsible for centrally coordinating the delivery of the SRE initiatives, and there is currently no Ministry for Equal/Gender Opportunities to take on this task. Schools remain the main institutional actor for the provision of SRE to young people aged between 8 and 19 years old.
In the absence of any ministerial guidance, each school is free to adopt (or disregard) SRE initiatives and to autonomously define educational contents and objects. The result is an uneven geographical distribution and the lack of common standards. Students are in fact exposed to different meanings and messages, depending on their instructor and school. Moreover, many schools do not have enough funding for the delivery of SRE, especially when this implies the involvement of external experts. This further results in a patchy geographical distribution.
In order to map the state of SRE initiatives in Italian schools, a sample of 106 schools was randomly selected from the list of Italian registered schools. For a broader coverage of the Italian territory, schools were selected equally from Northern, Central and Southern regions. To facilitate the analysis, the sample was restricted just to high schools. The content of the Programmatic Document of each school (the so-called ‘PTOF’) was explored to identify the presence of key words (e.g. sexual education; sexuality; affectivity; gender; violence; women; love; HIV etc.) and understand how many schools include SRE activities in their educational offer and -if so- what kind. Overall, -out of 106 schools- 57 do not plan or even mention any kind of SRE. For the remaining 59, at least one SRE activity is mentioned in the PTOF (see table 1). Yet, for many of them, clearly recognizable projects are not always available, and it rather seems that SRE is only formally and merely mentioned in the PTOF but never really translated into action.
Source: Author’s Own
Moreover, the analysis of the PTOFs reveals that the combination of the ‘S’ and the ‘R’ components is hardly reflected in the educational offer of Italian schools. Most of the schools focus just on one of the two dimensions, overlooking the other. The schools promoting the “S” tailor their activities to sex education, prevention of sexual diseases, pregnancy and development of sexual awareness through cycles of meetings with gynaecologists, psychologists or other external experts. The schools that address the “R” target their activities to the fight against gender violence, discrimination, gender equality and relationship with the other. They use different interactive teaching tools, such as calls for journal articles, movie/photograph contests or the participation to key symbolic events (e.g. the woman international day). Many schools affirm their commitment to introducing gender and sexual education in a transversal way across different schools’ subjects.
However, of the selected sample, just 2-3 schools were actually able to support SRE in a comprehensive way, by combining the “S” and “R” components. There is no evidence that schools in the South are less receptive to SRE than schools in the North. The high number of schools without SRE initiatives concerns all Italian geographical areas. SRE activities are distributed unevenly, independently from the school’s geographical location. Finally, for most of the schools engaged into SRE, there are interesting synergies with other local actors (hospitals, ASLs, associations) who contribute with their expertise to the delivery of SRE initiatives.
SRE at a grassroots level
An increasing number of Italian civil society associations have made gender equality (and SRE) their mission. Their main strength is that they are able to target a much bigger audience than schools. Whereas the latter are generally limited to 13-19 years old teenagers, SRE initiatives in the associative world can address a mixed target composed of students, teachers, educators and parents. Some of the activities specifically target primary school students. Different methodologies and teaching methods are adopted. Many promote awareness-raising days on key topics such as gender-based violence; others organize interactive and training laboratories in private and public structures. Most of the associations cooperate with schools and some of them have even activated training courses on gender violence in cooperation with Universities.
Yet, ‘the exacerbation of the anti-gender campaigning as well as the recrudescence of racism and xenophobia have made the education work one of significant difficulty both inside and outside schools’. In this regard, several associations have recently emerged with the goal of contrasting public SRE activities and keep the issue as a private affair within parents’ competence. The National Observatory devoted to affective and sexual education is a case in point. Born within the Committee “Let’s defend our children”, the goal of the Observatory is to keep a tight control on schools’ educational offer, warning about any potential teaching and educative ‘abuse’. These social divisions directly impinge upon the work of many of the associations engaged into SRE promotion.
Overall, SRE remains a contested issue in Italy. The absence of a clear public policy on the point gives raise to uneven implementation, with schools and associations’ capacities and practices varying greatly across the country.
Dr. Iole Fontana
IPPF (2007), The Safe Project.
European Parliament (2013), Policies for Sexuality Education in the European Union, Policy Department C.
Forleo R. and Lucisano P. (1980), Sex Ed in Italy, Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, n.6
 The proposals equally came from centre-right, extreme right, centre-left and extreme-left parties.
 For instance, the first draft bill in 1975 was blocked during the discussion within the parliamentary committee. The same happened in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2007, 2013, 2015.
 http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2014/06/08/educazione-sessuale-in-olanda-si-inizia-a-4-anni-in-italia-non-ce-una-normativa/1008863/ ; http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2017/06/07/genitori-in-rivolta-contro-il-libro-di-educazione-sessuale-mio_a_22130537/
 Informal interviews with a sample of Italian high school professors.