Sunday, September 24, 2006

Getting To Grips With Sex Education In China

By Joy Lu (China Daily)

Sex education is always a hot topic among youth in China, but Zhang Meimei, a professor at Capital Normal University in Beijing, decided five months ago to take the next step and do something that she thought has been overdue for years: hold a sex education summer camp for pre-teenagers.

The 11- and 12-year-olds were to learn about puberty, how to befriend the opposite sex and how to "become popular in school." Zhang knew it would be difficult to make parents understand her motives, and she was right. Last month, she had to cancel the camp. Though many parents enquired about the camp, only 10 decided to enrol their children.

Why? The answer can be found in what two of the parents had to say: "It's embarrassing to send my child to a sex education camp when other children are going to an English or technology camp," and "I'm afraid the summer camp will make children think of things they should not."

"A typical Chinese parent just turns pale at the mention of sex," says Zhang, who has studied sex education for 16 years.

Ready for sex?

Chinese children today are already exposed to a lot of sex from TV shows, movies, the Internet, advertising and even news.

Zhang Xiaoji director of Green Apple House, a Beijing-based sex education centre says some children's questions are quite "advanced" for their age. "A junior middle school student once asked what oral sex was." But that has to be expected as fall-out of what has been happening in today's society. "What else do you expect with the sex scandal of Clinton splashed across newspaper headlines? Every kid seems to have heard of oral sex. Parents across China may still like to believe in the innocence of their wards, but youngsters' attitudes towards sex have changed. And the sooner we accept it, the better."

In a survey of 1,060 senior middle school students in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province, about one-third said they had started dating, and 23 per cent said that it's OK to have sex at their age. In a survey by the Municipal Women's Federation of Beijing, 8 per cent of the girls aged between 13 and 19 said they had had sex.

Contrasted with the openness about sex is a lack of knowledge. In the Hangzhou survey, about one-third did not know what actions would cause pregnancy and two-thirds could not name the transmission methods of venereal diseases.

The teenage pregnancy rate is climbing in most Chinese cities. In the Beijing survey, 3 per cent of girls said they have been pregnant. Under-age girls accounted for about one-fourth of the 1.49 million abortions on the Chinese mainland in 2002, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency.

Without proper guidance from adults, these teenagers are using TV programmes such as "Friends" and "Sex in the City" as primers on relationships and sex, says Zhang Xiaoji.

A Green Apple House survey shows that 70 per cent of under-age visitors learned about sex through magazines, movies, TV and the Internet, and 24 per cent by reading books. That means parents are source of information for only 1.7 per cent and 1.3 per cent of the children.

Leaving the children to explore on their own is dangerous, because the information they are gathering may be "unwholesome, inaccurate and incomplete," Zhang Xiaoji said.

Zhang Meimei agreed: "Teenagers want to know what it's like to be in love. They want to experience the beautiful feeling of being with the opposite sex. If we don't provide an age-appropriate behaviour model, then they have to imitate what happens in movies and TV shows."

Supply and demand

Middle schools in major Chinese cities do have puberty education in their curriculum. But surveys have repeatedly indicated that the students are unhappy with it.

The emphasis on academic performance and the fear of controversy have prompted many schools to make only a half-hearted effort to teaching students about sex. The result: Puberty lesson periods are used to teach other subjects, and students are told to read the textbooks at home - that is, if there's a textbook at all. A survey in Shenzhen, China's economic powerhouse in Guangdong Province, has found that one in every five middle schools doesn't have a puberty lesson textbook.

School-based sex education programmes have three problems, Zhang Xiaoji said: "Schools do not attach importance to sex education, there's no official textbook and the teachers are ill-trained."

Organizations such as Green Apple House are trying to fill in the gap. And more and more middle schools have started counselling services for students. "But the supply is far, far behind the demand," says Wang Lina, a member of the China Sexology Association's puberty education committee.

Better known as "Sister Siyu," Wang runs a popular sex education section of Tencent's QQ web portal ( The website features a question-and-answer column and has even attracted people from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Wang and her two volunteer assistants have been answering questions from troubled youths in their spare time. "We are exhausted, but even then our efforts just a drop in the bucket," she said.

Web-based consultation appeals to teenagers because of the anonymity and accessibility of the Internet. But website operators are reluctant to invest in such a service because advertisers or sponsors are still not ready for it.

Wang says game companies have offered to advertise. But she had been turning down their offers because computer game addiction, too, is a big problem among teenagers. "I try to instil the value of self-control. Running an advertisement for an addictive activity would be a contradiction."

A role for the parents

Sex education for children is a challenge for all parents, but Chinese parents seem to be particularly clumsy with it. During their adolescence, sex education didn't exist, and sex out of wedlock was still a burning shame.

The Municipal Women's Federation of Beijing polled 1,500 parents and found that 74 per cent had chosen to avoid the topic. Parents polled by Green Apple House said they felt not knowledgeable enough (57 per cent) or too embarrassed (23 per cent) to talk about sex with their children.

"Many parents equate sex education with explaining intercourse. This is a misconception," Wang said.

Sex education, she said, is much more than reproduction and contraception. It should also cover values related to sex, relationship and intimacy.

Wang said that parents should decide what to teach their children according to the circumstances.

"I believe the facts should be taught by the school," she said. " If the school is not teaching it, maybe you can give your children a book. Of course, it's best if you can comfortably discuss the book with them."

And there are no better people than the parents to teach values.

"Sex education, in essence, is about helping your children to become good men and women," Zhang Meimei said. "Think of it as a part of the life skills you want to give your children."

She believes the secret to successful sex education is to make it a long-term, everyday process.

A Sunday afternoon chat aimed at resolving all puberty issues is obviously awkward. "But it'll be a good discussion opportunity when your child comes home from school and reports that a classmate has had her first period," she said.

If the talk about self-control and responsibility starts to sound like preaching, it's a good idea to use real-life stories. Every child wants to know the love story of their parents, even if they think their parents boring and old-fashioned, suggested Claura Lau, a social worker supervising a pregnant girls' service in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Meanwhile, it's an important task for the parents to provide timely guidance when issues arise.

In Wang's experience, the frequently asked questions from the boys are "if their sex organs are too small, if they have redundant foreskin and if they have masturbated too much." Girls are often concerned with "the development of their breasts, menstruation and pregnancy."

Wang urged parents to take time to thoroughly discuss an issue, even though from the adult's point of view, the most convenient thing to do is to relax and do nothing.

A boy she counselled went to his father with a question and was told "it's no big deal."

"But children won't be satisfied with a simple 'no big deal,' " Wang said. "They are still puzzled. They want to know why it's no big deal and if the reason is valid."

Both Zhang and Wang agree that the role of sex educator may be a difficult one for Chinese parents, but it is one they must learn to take on.

Zhang Meimei plans to reintroduce her plan for the sex education camp next year. And this time, she said, the camp will be preceded by awareness campaigns towards the more important targets: "We will work on the parents first."

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