Sex Ed In Urban China

During my time at CET Harbin I worked closely with an epidemiologist who had worked in rural China for years trying to pilot HIV/AIDS education programs. She described to me what it was like teaching adult women in rural Chinese factories about condom use and how HIV/AIDS can be transmitted sexually. “Impossible!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “Whenever we would talk about condoms, or sex, or anything having to do with intercourse, they would giggle, become red and turn their heads! And these were grown women!” She explained more of the challenges that faced bringing sex ed into schools here in China. “We tried bringing sex ed into schools in rural areas once. The parents were furious, implying we were doing no more than teaching their children pornography, and we had to pull the program. I’m not sure if Chinese parents will ever accept sex ed in schools here!”

This week, however, sex education textbooks and curriculum are finally making their way into the schools in Beijing and Shanghai. The textbooks aren’t perfect, ranging from too straightforward (“Dad inserts his penis inside mom and shoots his sperm fiercely into mom’s vagina.”) to a little too cartoonish (“comparing the process of fertilization to a swimming race among sperm, who wear swimming goggles and practice very hard, with the winner having the honor of staying with the “ovum princess“”). After briefly perusing the textbooks myself, however, I have to say they do seem overall pretty benign, and I’m pretty pleased that sex education is finally making its way into Chinese schools.

Of course, not without controversy. The “sex-ed as pornography” critics have certainly gained momentum among parents and the community. Recently, the topic has exploded on the Chinese blogisphere, with blogs such as China Hush and China Geeks involved. Both blogs have translated an outlandish commentary by Beijing University professor Kong Qingdong berating these new sex education classes as threatening to turn China into a hypersexualized society centered on “foreign worship”. Kong’s argument goes that sex should be kept mysterious so life doesn’t become boring. Sex ed in other countries has led to impotence, and really, China has done just fine, thank you, without sex education for thousands of years and will continue to do so (read the China Geeks translation here).

The writers at China Geeks agree that Kong’s assertions are ludicrous, but then unfortunately make the argument that sex education is important, but maybe not that important. “Now, in the absence of sex ed, most children will probably do fine. You have only to look at China today to see that. Sure, they may have had some embarrassing moments of ignorance along the way, but they may make it to the “finish line” with no damage done, as people have indeed done for thousands of years before the advent of laminated pamphlets and the banana-condom demonstration.”

Actually, kids in China are not faring particularly well without sex education. Kids do not talk to their parents about sex, and are bombarded by sexual messages on the internet and television. In urban areas of China, people are having sex at an earlier age, and studies in China show that unmarried women here are getting pregnant due to lack of sexual education. In 2004, in order to address the needs of teens in Shanghai, the Shanghai 411 Hospital started a hotline that teenagers can use to field these kinds of questions. Since its inauguration, the hotline has fielded more than 50,000 calls and helped over 4,000 pregnant teens with abortions, some as young as 13.

China needs a comprehensive sex education program for adolescents. China has now entered the era of one-child policies, HIV/AIDS and a sexual revolution in many urban areas. As my epidemiologist professor in Harbin pointed out time and again to concerned parents, sex education is not teaching kids how to have sex. It’s teaching adolescents and teens, especially women, how to protect themselves. The World Health Organization did a study of 35 sex education programs from around the world and found absolutely no evidence that they encouraged sexual activity among youth, and sex education is effective in reducing teenage pregnancy more than anything.

Abortion rates among teens in China and the rise in STD’s and HIV/AIDS are a testament to why we DO need to implement sex education in schools in China. Because unfortunately, without sex education, children in China are not doing so “fine” anymore.

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