"Children and young people are increasingly looking for answers [about sex] on the internet," said Alberto Pellai, a child psychotherapist and researcher at the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Milan.
Since 1975, there have been multiple attempts to establish compulsory sex education in Italian schools. But in 2023, it's still not part of the national curriculum. When it comes to funding and implementation in schools, sex education remains a regional decision.
Italy is not the only European Union country lagging in this area — young people in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and Spain are also not consistently receiving sex education at school.
Educated by the internet
Pellai is concerned that the result is young people getting their information about sex online. In addition to false information and half-truths about sexual practices and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), certain types of pornography are dangerous, especially among boys, he said.
"The depictions of sex on the internet are very violent and often have a racist or pedophilic character. This creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty about sex education — and other problems that young people have to deal with," he said.
In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, STDs like chlamydia and syphilis are on the rise again. For psychotherapist Maria Cristina Florini, president of the Italian Sexology Center, the focus is not only on providing information about sex and health, but also engaging in dialogue about these topics.
"Teachers should address sex education throughout the school year," she said. "Since they know the students well, they have different access to them."
A certain informality is helpful in addressing such topics openly, said Florini. The result would be students learning to take responsibility for themselves and others when it comes to sexual health.
Hostile political environment holds back sex ed
The Italian Sexology Center, among many other organizations, has tried inform the government on the importance of sexual education. Psychotherapist Pellai also believes Italy urgently needs a pedagogical concept for sex that is adapted to the digital world.
In 2021, Stefania Ascari of the populist 5-Star Movement made the 16th unsuccessful attempt in more than 45 years to compel schools to provide sex education nationwide. But these advocates are at odds with the country's current leadership.
Now the issue is in the hands of Education Minister Giuseppe Valditara, a member of the right-wing populist League party who opposes what he calls "gender propaganda" and supports a strong role for parents in children's education.
The League party is part of the current government, along with far-right Brothers of Italy party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the conservative Forza Italia. Meloni, now in office for six months, wants to increase the country's birth rate and the concept of a "natural family" in the Christian sense. By this, she means exclusively heterosexual families.
"I don't see a debate on sexual education at the national level that could give rise to a new concept for addressing this educational challenge," said researcher Pellai.
A Rome initiative fights back
But some politicians continue to push for mandatory sex education, with three members of Rome's City Council launching a petition last year.
Councilwoman Eva Vittoria Cammerino also supports the initiative, which is to be expanded to the state level. "The presence of the church is undeniable and, in fact, brings back a patriarchal view in which women always play a subordinate role," she told online feminist platform Freeda last week. Insufficient sexual education in Italy, she said, reinforces discrimination, sexism, homophobia and violence against women.
While studies provide only selective information on whether sex education in schools leads to a decrease in STDs and unwanted pregnancies, the science generally concludes that sex education not only promotes healthy sexual behavior among young people but also increases knowledge about sex and health.
This article originally appeared in German.