Hong Kong’s sex education crisis: why people turn to sex workers for knowledge

Deeply ingrained prudishness has bred widespread ignorance of how to have pleasurable sexual relationships; a sex worker group has stepped into the breach, and found its workshops oversubscribed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 3:14pm

A middle-aged man thought he had a medical problem because he couldn’t hold himself back any longer after half an hour of lovemaking. A tiny picture of a woman’s private parts in a textbook for final-year high school pupils elicits shock from parents and students alike. Teachers used to order pupils to tape shut the chapter in school textbooks about reproduction.

No wonder, then, that men and women in Hong Kong are turning to sex workers for tips about lovemaking – and that workshops one sex workers’ group recently held were oversubscribed.

“There’s no place to learn about sex. Only people like us with thick skins can talk about this,” says Jenny, a sex worker who led the workshops. “Nothing you ask or say will make us blush.”

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The same cannot be said for one university social work student, who walked out of a talk by another sex worker, Ben, when he used slang terms to describe acts common in foreplay.

“As soon as I talked about fingering a woman, s**king d**k, a student complained about me. They asked their instructor to tell me to use proper language, saying I shouldn’t swear,” says Ben.

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Will these future social workers be too self-conscious to counsel people using these “vulgar terms”, he asks.

Nor can it be said of teachers, who would get red in the face just listening to Jenny talk as part of their training. They take a stilted, clinical approach to sex education – a prudishness some attribute to Chinese history. The Cultural Context of Sexual Pleasure and Problems, edited by Kathryn Hall and Cynthia Graham, notes that the neo-Confucian teaching that developed following the Song dynasty – which ended in the 13th century – “has been very influential in shaping current Chinese perceptions of sexuality. Neo-Confucianism emphasised the harmfulness of sexual pleasure to physical health and to spiritual development.”

It’s no surprise, then, that, with sex education so lacking in schools and most parents reluctant to talk to their children about sex and intimacy, many Hongkongers are ignorant about what goes on between the sheets.

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Recent university graduate Wong Hau-yi, 21, recalls that boys and girls at her secondary school attended separate sex education classes and that lessons for girls focused on learning how to use a condom and protect themselves against sexual assault.

“[Teachers] explained everything in very abstract ways, so we thought that if you’re not going to say it out loud, then I shouldn’t talk about this,” says Wong.

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As a young teenager, all Wong knew about sex came from television images of couples wriggling under the sheets. It wasn’t until her friends became sexually active that she got a better idea, she says.

Matthew Yau Kwai-sang, a professor at Tung Wah College and certified sex therapist, reckons sex education in Hong Kong schools is “still as lousy as it was years ago” – a time when teachers just skipped the chapter on reproduction, as thirty-something Karen Lau Hong-lam recalls. No wonder, then, that parents and students were shocked to be shown a textbook photo of a vagina during a talk. “They said it was pornographic; it’s as if they had never seen anything like it,” says Lau, also a certified sex therapist.

“Some friends my age told me that they were told to seal that part of the textbook with tape and not to read it; another teacher asked students to cut out that section and throw it away,” she adds.

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It’s an attitude Yau sums up as “close our eyes, the less we talk about it, the teenagers won’t do it”.

But teenagers the world over do have sex, and a curiosity about sex – one that many satisfy by viewing pornography.

A 2014 survey of more than 2,500 students in Britain (half of them teenagers) found that 60 per cent watch pornography to learn more about sex, even though almost three quarters know that it’s unrealistic.

Jenny, who led recent workshops held by the JJJ Association, a support group for female sex workers, often encounters clients undermined by such fantasies.

“If porn is where you get your information, you might think that everyone has a huge penis and that they can do it for a long time without ejaculating. The men who come to us cover theirs because they’re afraid people will laugh at them for having small ones,” she says.

The gentleman said, ‘Well I’m not happy about it … how come it’s not as long as in the DVD?’
Matthew Yau

Yau, founding chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Sexuality Educators, Researchers and Therapists, recalls a client who was worried because he was climaxing after half an hour of sex.

“The gentleman said, ‘Well I’m not happy about it … how come it’s not as long as in the DVD? The guy can last for 45 minutes or an hour … and how come my wife is not screaming and moaning like in the movies?”

It is to correct ignorance such as this that the JJJ Association organised its workshops in the past two months to teach people about pleasurable intercourse. Intended for 20 people, they were expanded to 30 participants because of high demand, and more workshops will be held in September.

Led by sex therapists, the owner of a sex toy shop and sex workers, they covered subjects from techniques in bed to communicating with a partner and sexual hygiene.

Jenny says: “Most people think, ‘Why do I need to learn this at all? All we have to do is lie down and do it.’ [But] it’s like learning a dance – you’ll be okay at first with someone counting the rhythm, but you’re bound to step on your partner’s toes so you have to learn each other’s rhythms.”

A happy sex life requires communication between partners, JJJ spokeswoman Sherry Hui says, and the goal of the workshops is to start a discussion and relieve the pressure of talking about sex – not encourage casual sex.

“You don’t know about the problems people have only because they’re not discussed…and repressed,” Hui says. “A lot of people think it’s ... like a Pandora’s box that you can never close once it’s opened, but it’s about your own moral code and conduct.”

Grace Lee Ming-ying, education manager at the Family Planning Association, says Hong Kong society “isn’t comfortable even talking about” sexual well-being. “And if we can’t talk about it, how can we learn,” she asks.

Even starting a public discussion about sex can attract censure, as Julia Sun Wai-han , founder of the Sticky Rice Love website, discovered.

Sun, 25, launched the site two years ago before she began her master’s programme in sex education at the University of Hong Kong. At the time, relatives and former colleagues admonished her over the venture. “Some would warn me to be careful, that people think I’m very casual [about sex],” she recalls. “It’s precisely because of this stigma that I have to be proactive. Just because a woman talks about sex doesn’t mean she’s casual or slutty.”

Just because a woman talks about sex doesn’t mean she’s casual or slutty
Julia Sun, Sticky Rice Love

While the JJJ Association and Sticky Rice Love, which will hold workshops for women this month about sexual health and pleasure, and later for men, are trying to address ignorance about sex, Yau thinks school sex education classes should become part of the core curriculum and cover issues such as relationships, sexual orientation and sexual pleasure, rather than just basic human anatomy and contraception. Sweden and Denmark as examples of countries that do it well, he says.

Lee finds sex education simply isn’t a priority at schools. “You’re encouraged to study, to learn skills that help you make money,” she says.

Of 134 secondary schools in Hong Kong which responded to a survey by the Health Department in 2013, more than half said they were too busy or had no time for effective education about sex or HIV/Aids. Almost three-quarters said their teachers lacked the knowledge or teaching resources for the task. About 20 per cent failed even to mention using condoms.

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In a writen reply to questions submitted by the South China Morning Post, an Education Bureau spokesman said sex education was an essential element of the school curriculum. “Under the spirit of school-based management”, he said, institutions would allot content and time “to cater for the needs of students as well as their stakeholders”.

I can’t see a path towards the city becoming more open
Ben, sex instructor

The effectiveness of sex education was gauged through school visits and “professional dialogue between stakeholders of the schools”, he adds.

Although the bureau has set guidelines, Lau says this means how sex education is conducted is up to schools, and some apparently choose to do nothing.

“[Sex is] controversial and the bureau doesn’t want to be controversial, so they just write the guidelines and call it a day,” she says.

Few hold out much hope for better sex education or greater openness about sexual matters in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is very conservative. People can’t get past this in their heads,” says Ben, instructor for the JJJ Association workshops. “I can’t see a path towards the city becoming more open.”

To underline just how far Hong Kong still has to go, fellow instructor Jenny said some people had told her they were afraid of going to the sessions in case they ran into someone they knew.

“I mean, sure, perhaps you’ll be afraid of calling a sex worker, but the workshop is just for people to learn, yet people are still scared,” she says.