Poland’s schools are failing youth on sex ed. Real sexual awareness is online instead.
Poland’s Black Monday protests grabbed the headlines back in April 2016, when 200,000 people spilled out onto streets to oppose a proposed total ban on abortion. The nationwide demonstrations were the most visible manifestation of an ongoing battle for reproductive rights in the majority-Catholic nation, where the landscape of what women can choose to do with their bodies has become even more restricted under the ruling Law and Justice party. While the proposed abortion bill set off one of the biggest demonstrations in modern Polish history, the educational reforms put forward a year later made smaller waves. What has education got to do with sexual and reproductive freedoms? Everything, says Anja Rubik, an international model and campaigner for sexual education in Poland. Her educational campaign #SexEdPl, launched together with Polish women’s rights organisation Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, promises to get Polish people talking about sex.
No Polish government has yet introduced sex education into the national school curriculum, and in 2017 the ruling party voted against such an initiative. The only sexual advice available in school is on preparation for family life. In October 2018, a Warsaw school came under fire for using a textbook that warned girls not to dress provocatively, stating openly: “if they harass you, it’s your own fault.” Just a few weeks later, Polish schools were pressured into cancelling an LGBTQ-firendly, anti-discrimination event called Rainbow Friday, after Poland’s education minister Anna Zalewska warned of serious repercussions for any principals that allowed it to go ahead.
#SexEdPl’s aim is to spread the kind of sex-positive information that’s currently withheld from young people. The campaign began online, in the form of 60-second educational videos featuring famous Polish personalities. Along with “pop-up” sex-ed classes, Rubik has since released a #SexEdPl publication: the only textbook aimed at young people that gives practical information on sex, including sexuality and LGBTQ rights, as well as advice on puberty and growing up. It features interviews with educators, therapist, doctors, and activists. One of the challenges in making the book was choosing how to illustrate it. “There wasn’t supposed to be any nudity,” explains photographer Zuza Krajewska, whose role was to find and photograph young people for the publication. “Nothing that would have landed it in the adult section because this project was meant as a tool for education.”
Drawing on her career as a fashion photographer, Krajewska’s portraits for the book are carefree and candid. “I know how much time Anja put into editing the materials in a way so that it would be understandable for kids today, without any didactic, scientific tedium,” she says. Along with the book’s designer, Joanna Skiba, Krajewska wanted to produce something with young people in mind.
Speaking about the future of #SexEdPl, Krajewska believes that it’s young people now carry the torch for change. “I see what an impact the book has made and how well it’s been received by the open minds of young Poles. I think that the next generations will come closer to European standards in terms of education, and sex education will finally find its place in schools and stops being treated like a dangerous taboo.”