SOFIA — When it first aired in 2019, Sex Education, a popular Netflix show, was an instant hit with millions of adults and teenagers. The premise was simple: the lack of decent sex education in a high school in rural Britain forced two students to start running an underground sex clinic. In the privacy of graffiti-adorned toilet stalls, the two teenagers did their best to dispense advice about sex, relationships, and consent, as their fellow students flooded them with questions.

The show’s predicament might sound painfully familiar to thousands of teenagers in Bulgaria where sex education is not a mandatory part of the school curriculum. As the topic continues to be taboo among teenagers and their parents, many Bulgarian adolescents are ill-equipped to deal with sexuality and matters related to their sexual well-being, a major factor, experts think, in Bulgaria’s high numbers of teenage pregnancies.

One 15-year-old girl from Chepelare, a town in southern Bulgaria, tells RFE/RL that she would like to see sex education classes in school at least once a month. The girl, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that her school has only had a lecture on HIV/AIDS prevention, conducted by the Red Cross.

Snezhana Ilieva, an 18-year-old student in a village in southwestern Bulgaria, agrees and sees the lack of sex education programs in schools as “a huge flaw.” “Many of my classmates are becoming sexually active but have no idea how to have safe sex,” Ilieva says, adding that she has friends who had an abortion at the age of 16-17. “They did not really realize the consequences of having unprotected sex.”

Many sexually active teenagers in Bulgaria do not use protection. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, 40 percent of the 15-year-old boys and 20 percent of girls say they have had sexual intercourse. However, only 56 percent of the girls and 66 percent of the boys said they used a condom, according to the Jasmin Live data about the lives of women and children in Bulgaria.

Curious teenagers who are embarrassed to talk to their parents and are not offered any sex education classes at school end up seeking information online and from their peers. A 16-year-old girl from the capital, Sofia, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she feels embarrassed to discuss sex-related topics with her parents and sexual health is not really addressed in school. “I mostly talk about sex with my closest friends who are older than me and have more experience,” she says.

After Romania, Bulgaria has the second highest teenage pregnancy rate in the EU: 10 percent of children are born to mothers under 20 years old compared to an EU average of 4 percent, according to 2015 data provided by Eurostat. In 2018, Bulgaria had the highest abortion rate in the EU and, in general, the number of teenage girls having pregnancies terminated is higher than the EU average.

“Young people cannot make informed choices and this often puts them at higher risk for unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and even substance abuse,” says Radosveta Stamenkova, executive director of the Bulgarian Family Planning and Sexual Health Association, a nonprofit organization which works in the field of reproductive and health education with a special focus on disadvantaged communities.

Despite the worrisome numbers of teenage pregnancies and abortions, Bulgaria’s government has been slow to act. While sexual health could be a theme covered in the students’ civil education program, each school decides whether to include such courses or not. Experts estimate that around 10 percent of Bulgarian schools offer some kind of sex education classes.

Community-based organizations are trying to change that grim picture by equipping teenagers with fact- and science-based knowledge about how sex works — a world away from the often damaging and misleading depictions of sex in pornography that teenagers sometimes watch.

Nikoleta Popkostadinova, the founder of Loveguide, an online platform for sex education aimed at Bulgarian teenagers.
Nikoleta Popkostadinova, the founder of Loveguide, an online platform for sex education aimed at Bulgarian teenagers.
In 2015, Nikoleta Popkostadinova, 39, a former journalist and head of marketing at a software company, founded Loveguide, an online platform for sex education aimed at Bulgarian teenagers. Since then, Loveguide has taught classes in schools, reaching around 8,000 students from 50 high schools across the country. Their YouTube videos have a total of 10 million views and 65,000 followers. Every day the Loveguide team is overwhelmed with questions on all of their social-media platforms.

“Our classes were greatly welcomed by students, but also by teachers and parents,” said Popkostadinova. She warns that teenage sexual health in Bulgaria is almost nonexistent and there are many gaps to fill. “Basic competences are missing in all areas of sexual health — from hygiene to STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and body image,” she says.

“We had to start with the ABCs of sex education — that you need to wash your hands and change your underwear. When no one taught you these basic facts, how do we expect teenagers to be knowledgeable and responsible about sex?”

On their YouTube channel the organization tackles a range of issues — from menstruation and contraception to having sex for the first time. Loveguide also offers tips for navigating puberty and coming-of-age advice by providing guidance on loneliness, coming out with your sexual orientation, relationship and dating problems, and bullying in schools.

Loveguide also talks about the positive side of sex, which is often not touched on in any classroom discussions. “We try to talk about sex, love, and pleasure in a comprehensive, honest, and friendly way,” said Popkostadinova.

In a 2020 video, the YouTube face of Loveguide, actress Vesela Babinova, leaves teenagers with the following takeaway: “Driving a car is not like driving in [the] Fast And Furious [movies]. Love and relationships are not like the ones [portrayed] in rom-coms, and having sex is not like having sex in porn films.”

Raising awareness seems to work. When she was in high school, Viktoria Nikolova, a 19-year-old student now studying at the American University in Bulgaria, completed a peer education program with the Bulgarian Family Planning and Sexual Health Association, aimed at students who would teach their fellow CameraBoys teenagers about the benefits of sex education. Nikolova completed two training sessions at her high school at the time.

“My classmates showered me with questions after the training,” Nikolova says. “They felt much more at ease talking to a peer.”

At the moment, Nikolova says that the school curriculum barely covers any health or sex-related matters. “Some health and sex education basics are integrated in other classes, but most teachers either skip the topic because they don’t have the time or barely touch on it,” she says.

Nikolova wishes sex education was more inclusive, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. “These topics are an absolute taboo in Bulgaria and I don’t think we would see them as part of a school sex education program any time soon,” she says. “I also think that comprehensive sex health classes should talk about issues like consent and sexual harassment,” she adds.

But efforts to normalize conversations around sex and sexuality might not always be so easy. While religious opposition to sex education has not been a major factor in Bulgaria, as it has been in some parts of the United States, experts warn that in recent years a conservative streak has appeared.

Sexism and domestic violence plague Bulgaria, with recent brutal attacks against women making headlines in the local press. In 2020, a program in Pernik, a small town about an hour from Sofia, aimed at preventing violence and sexual abuse against children, was temporarily suspended.

The program was halted after a concerned mother, whose child did not even attend the classes, complained that children had been forced to “draw genitals.” Without verifying the information, local media picked up the story and caused an uproar. Later, it turned out that the offended mother’s family advocates “traditional family values” and regularly peddles misinformation.

“Conservative voices are getting louder and that makes teaching sex and health education classes more difficult,” says Stamenkova, the director of the family planning organization. “We are waiting for the schools to reach out to us but some of them are afraid of being accused of corrupting children.”

“These attacks aim only to stir controversy and exploit it for political gain,” says Raya Raeva, the campaign director at the Bulgarian Fund for Women, a Sofia-based nonprofit that supports different initiatives aimed at improving gender equality in the country.

Vagina Matters, an illustrated book which aims to teach girls and young women about their bodies, menstruation, safe sex, and consent. (Photo by Fine Acts)
Vagina Matters, an illustrated book which aims to teach girls and young women about their bodies, menstruation, safe sex, and consent. (Photo by Fine Acts)
Along with another activist, Svetla Baeva, Raeva is also a co-author of Vagina Matters, an illustrated book which aims to teach girls and young women about their bodies, menstruation, safe sex, and consent.

When the book was released in 2020, nationalist politicians condemned it as “progressive propaganda.” The then Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, the leader of the far-right VMRO-Bulgarian Nationalist Movement, even called for a criminal investigation into the book. In January 2021, Mravin, the first Bulgarian children’s book which features same-sex couples, faced a similar backlash from right-wing politicians.

“Such reactions actually do not correspond with the general attitudes towards sex education and reproductive rights,” Raeva says. Close to 80 percent of Bulgarians say that health education, including sex education, needs to be introduced in public schools, according to a 2019 survey commissioned by the Bulgarian Fund for Women.

Despite that, it remains a topic that politicians are wary of — both during, before, and after the decade-long rule of conservative Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, which ended in April 2021. “I have been hearing for decades that the school curriculum is already too packed to introduce Joyourself sex and health education classes. This is a ridiculous argument,” Stamenkova says.

Bulgaria’s new governing coalition, led by a party that campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, is not planning to introduce separate sex education classes, the Education Ministry has said in a statement to RFE/RL, adding that the current curriculum features “sexual and health education to a significant extent.”

Raeva notes that Vagina Matters received an outpouring of positive feedback and support. “We received many ‘thank you’ notes from girls as well as mothers and sisters,” Raeva says. “But the most moving message came from a single father who told us that the book helped him a lot to start discussing sexual health with his daughter.”

“Sex education is extremely important,” says Ilieva, the student in the village in southwestern Bulgaria. “Studying the human body in biology classes only scratches the surface.”

The student wishes Bulgarian authorities could draw some inspiration from fictional TV shows like Sex Education. She enjoyed watching the show and finds its youth-friendly and shame-free approach to thorny questions related to sex refreshing. “It’s very interesting and I learned a lot,” she says.


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