Brazil Cuts Sex Education Despite Boom in HIV and Syphilis

Brazil is cutting funding for sex education as the country experiences a sharp increase in incidences of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

The balance of the country's political power has moved dramatically right in recent years, culminating in the October 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January. Bolsonaro was elected on a platform of conservative populism and has been widely compared to President Donald Trump.

National legislation promoted by the country's religious right that would limit the teaching of sex education in classrooms is supported by Bolsonaro. Although the law has not been formally adopted, several areas of the country have adopted similar laws at the local level.

Opponents of the laws warn that curtailing education could lead to a worsening of already high rates of STIs and are rooted in scientific ignorance and homophobia.

Bolsonaro himself has a long history of what appear to be extremely anti-gay views. He has stated that he would be "incapable" of loving a hypothetical gay son, and once claimed that if he witnessed two men kissing, he "would beat them." When he campaigned for president, he made unsubstantiated claims that a political opponent had created a "gay kit" for schools to "convert" children to homosexuality.

The push to limit sex education seems motivated at least partly by the idea that children who learn about sex will start having sexual encounters earlier. Advocates of limiting education also apparently believe that learning about homosexuality will somehow result in children being persuaded to become gay, a concept that has been widely discredited by experts.

Critics also point out that children are likely to learn about sex, including homosexuality, regardless of whether schools officially teach the subject.

Jair Bolsonaro
President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called the "Brazilian Trump," supports the cuts to sex education. SERGIO LIMA/AFP/Getty

"This is absurd," Brazilian AIDS Interdisciplinary Association (ABIA) outreach coordinator Vagner de Almeida told PRI. "Young Brazilians are going to be exposed to sex on television and especially online, where disinformation is rampant."

Advocates for sex education say that blocking education comes at a particularly bad time, as STI rates appear to be skyrocketing while fewer people are attempting to halt the spread of disease by using protection like condoms. Incidences of syphilis in particular are the highest they have been in the country for about a decade.

"At least three times a week I get test results that show syphilis. Many are from patients who have had treatment but became infected again. Every day this becomes more frequent," Brazilian infectious disease specialist Eliana Bicudo told Folha De S.Paulo.

Medical experts are also worried that the policies of Bolsonaro could cripple programs designed to limit the spread of AIDS. HIV rates in men aged 15-24 have more than tripled over the last 10 years.

"We are concerned," said ABIA vice president Veriano Terto Jr. to The Rio Times. "What will happen to programs that are not as consolidated, such as PrEP and PeP, is a question mark."

If legislation limiting sex education doesn't end up becoming law in Brazil, there still appears to be a grassroots effort that is focused on conservative-minded parents lobbying schools directly. Whether they succeed or not, it seems certain that advocates for education will also continue to lobby in favor of what they believe is in the best interest of public health.