2022 in review: misinformation on a crucial topic for the young

The debate in parliament on whether sex education should be mandatory in schools plummeted to one of the lowest levels of discussion the House of Representatives has ever reached.

These are not my words, but those of House president Annita Demetriou, though I find it hard to disagree.

All in one go, the debate managed to encompass misinformation on what the law actually entails, accusations of hate speech against the LGBTQI+ community, and clear indications that the church has an extremely powerful influence over matters of the state.

It threw under the bus, the very people it was supposed to help (children) and also decided to make a dig at the LGBTQI+ community, well, just because.

To begin with, the glaring question is of course, why on Earth an EU member state in 2022 is even debating whether sex education should be mandatory in schools. What adds insult to injury however is that the primary target of the law lies in teaching children how to identify signs of abuse and where to turn to for help.

It is unfathomable why anyone would be opposed to this and why it would even be up for discussion.

However, far-right Elam and independent MP Andreas Themistocleous voted against. Diko’s eight deputies abstained.

Perhaps the term sex education is misleading. It does not educate children on creative ways in which they can engage in sex – it aims to educate them on how to protect themselves.

The legislation refers to ‘holistic sex education’ which aims to provide students the “knowledge, abilities and values to empower them so they can recognise their health, wellbeing and values”. It aims to teach children how to develop healthy social and sexual relations and recognise “their decisions affect their wellbeing and that of others. It teaches them their rights and how to ensure they are upheld.” Essentially, it teaches them consent.

How was this presented by those opposed to the law? Themistocleous, who must hold the prize for representing how far freedom of speech can go, described it as an indication of a “porn-fuelled and gay storm”.

One would think there were pages and pages dedicated to homosexual pornography. But the wording in the legislation is really quite clear and frankly quite dry, as one would expect legal documents to be. It really takes a stretch of the imagination to see pornography in it.

But for Themistocleous the law would teach “that it’s OK for two women to kiss each other, and for men the same. We will teach them that two women or two men can have a child.”

A number of MPs found that he pushed the ‘freedom of speech’ rule too far and this had ventured into hate speech. Particularly in his view that rolling out sex education would also teach children that “they can be born Kostakis and become Mariyoulla.”

There are two problems on hand here: the first, to phrase quite colloquially, so what? So what if children are taught that love isn’t up to any one of us to discriminate? And the second, while Themistocleous takes great offence at holistic sex education, it seems there is no issue with the consequences of the absence of sex education.

There are currently increased reports of sex abuse from minors and teen pregnancies are not uncommon. These are glaring signs that a lot needs to be done.

For any modern country – and especially one that has legalised abortion – sex education should be a given.

And though Themistocleous’ comments may be great for theatrics, there are a number of issues it detracts from. The first, an announcement by Education Minister Prodromos Prodromou that unions would be consulted to discuss the material that would be taught. Why? Does the ministry not have specialists and experts to do this? There was a lot of noise about how teaching sex education would affect the timetable, hence unions got involved.

This is nothing short of absurd. Teaching material should be set by the ministry. Mandating sex education should not have come from parliament to begin with – it should have been something the ministry had cemented. And though Prodromou repeatedly insisted it was already taught, had this been the case, there would have been no need for the legislation to go through to begin with.

Lastly, on the matter of invisible influences on the education ministry, it is worth noting a number of comments heard during the parliamentary debate: that efforts to scupper the law (there were many) were motivated by the church.

Any belief that we hold is inevitably shaped by a number of external influences. Faith, upbringing, lived experiences, to name a few. Being close to the church is by no means an issue. The problem lies when a) there is supposed to be a separation between church and state and b) when this appears to affect the lives of newer generations.

Though the church may teach abstinence, it cannot live so outside of the real world to fail to realise that this is not how most of society operates and therefore having safeguards in place can do a lot to protect children.

In the past year, the church itself has found itself embroiled in sex abuse scandals. Whether true or not, it highlights that evil and danger can be found anywhere. Perhaps the church could do some more self-reflection and be a champion in protecting children from abuse, rather than try to stop a law that tries to help them.

And whatever its stance may be, it really should not affect an entire ministerial policy and legislation that will affect the young, that has nothing to do with the church.