Growing acceptance of the need for sex education at mainland schools

Academics say it is high time that teachers made sex education a talking point in the classroom, even for young children

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 4:06am

Chen Shasha still remembers the distress she felt as a young girl when she asked her parents where she came from. The reply she received was one that many mainland children have heard for generations: they found her in a rubbish bin.

It's not that they are trying to be mean, but parents may use such stories as a way to avoid having an embarrassing discussion about the birds and the bees.

"I was so shocked and humiliated at the same time," Chen, now 34 years old, recalled. "And later, when my parents scolded me, I attempted to run away to find my real parents."

Today, as a mother of a girl who is nearly three years old, Chen doesn't want her daughter to go through that same pain and anxiety.

"I read a book that said making up stories about children being abandoned is bad for their self-esteem," said Chen, who lives in Beijing. "I will tell her in a simple but scientific way that she is the product of her parents' love. And I'd love for my daughter to receive proper sex education in school, even at a young age."

But to the disappointment of open-minded parents such as Chen, sex education is still a taboo topic in schools, as well as in society at large.

So when the Ministry of Education issued new national guidelines two weeks ago on the development goals of children aged three to six years old, covering everything from speech to physical growth, it came as little surprise to most onlookers that the topic of sex education was nowhere to be found.

Few primary or middle schools include sex education in their curriculum, and the topic is unheard of in kindergartens. Academics point out that more and more parents are open-minded about sex, and some schools have unofficially said that sex education is important, but national education authorities are less enthusiastic about it, as the topic has no bearing on high school or university entrance exams, nor on gauging teachers' performance.

Last year, a sex education book called Growing Steps, originally intended for elementary schoolchildren in Beijing, stirred heated debate, as it contained explicit text and illustrations of genitalia. Some parents called it pornographic, and local education authorities later said it was to be used for discussion and was not a real school textbook.

Cui Liling , who is director of the Nanjing Gulou Kindergarten in Nanjing , was one of about 30 experts that the Ministry of Education consulted in drafting the guidelines issued two weeks ago. She said they didn't want to risk harming sex education by overemphasising it.

"If we make it compulsory, it will become a sensitive issue, and too much attention may not yield good results," Cui said.

But some academics who specialise in sex education say it is high time schools tackled the taboo topic of sex by making it a talking point in schools, even for young children, many of whom become curious about the human body around the age of three, and some even show interest in the opposite sex.

Li Bian , director of the Aids-Prevention Education Project for Chinese Youth, said these young children should be taught how to deal with their developing impulses, and they should learn to protect themselves, while recognising the relationships they have with others.

"It's a good start to help them handle relationships later in life, and the earlier such education occurs, the better," Li said.

Fang Gang , an associate professor of gender studies at Beijing Forestry University, said the ideal place for sex education was within the family, but since Chinese families generally did not talk about it, and as information for peers and society was not always correct, school were often the best option.

Fang explained that sex education in kindergarten can start with teaching children about their bodies, and identifying the differences between the two sexes.

Additional points could include reinforcing sex equality, respect for others and protecting oneself from sexual violations.

"For example, if you are a boy and you feel like kissing a girl, you need to ask her permission to do that," Fang said. "Children can learn to respect others' feelings and to follow rules. This is good for overall growth."

Fang also defended the publication of Growing Steps, adding that the public's perception of sex education was generally biased. The essence of sex education, Fang said, was not abstinence but protection - and it was not about depriving young people of sex but about providing information so they could be responsible and able to make their own choices when the time came.

But Cui and those consulted on the new guidelines for young children said it was too early for kindergarten-aged children to be exposed to such information. Children might feel the desire to be with the opposite sex, and they might get excited or shy at the presence of the opposite sex, but they can wait until they are older to understand those feelings and develop the ability to love.

"We believe that it is sufficient to teach children how to protect themselves and to practise this in mock scenarios. They know they should not talk to strangers or go with strangers. They should not eat food from strangers, and some forms of bodily contact are prohibited," Cui said.

But what about if children ask where they came from?

"We have a book telling children that a father plants a seed in mama's belly, and after 10 months of pregnancy a baby is born, just like planting a tree," Cui said.

She added that parents and academics tend to overthink the issue, but if you give children an explanation, their curiosity is fulfilled and they move on. "Intercourse itself is not mentioned."