Parents often find themselves in a conundrum when it comes to the difficult subject of sex education. They shy away from discussing it with their children, but don't want them searching for answers on the internet and finding explicit content. The lack of open discussion may be the reason one study in recent years found that as many as 80 per cent of youngsters in Hong Kong rely on the web and media to learn about sex. According to the Family Planning Association, teachers are widely expected to do the job, but this leaves them in a quandary. They fear that focusing on contraception and safe sex may be interpreted by parents as encouraging sexual activity. Some schools err on the side of caution and focus exclusively on abstinence until marriage, which some view as unrealistic when most people now typically marry in their late 20s or early 30s. Either way, it's a disservice to youngsters, who could grow up to be misfits, according to experts. US sex education expert Dr Marty Klein, in Hong Kong to host a seminar for the association recently, says he always tries to be sensitive to local culture when he talks about the subject outside the US. He was reminded of Hong Kong's cultural context, with its mix of traditional and modern Westernised Chinese families. More than 50 participants, including government officials, social workers, teachers, nurses, sex therapists and tertiary students, were at the seminar. "What I heard was that there are some people in some schools, and some parents, who are concerned that they don't necessarily want their children exposed to factual information and proper names for body parts," Klein says. Parents may struggle to deal with the idea that sexuality is a normal, healthy part of childhood and adolescence, as well as adulthood, he adds. Parents everywhere should realise that some values are universal, Klein says. Sex education is crucial to prepare youngsters for a wholesome relationship with themselves, their bodies and other people. It teaches them that they should be making good, wholesome decisions about sexuality the same way should about every other part of their life, he says. "I'm very honest when I'm talking to people about sexuality education. Human beings are wired with sexual energy from the moment they are born, and, of course, expressing that sexuality is done quite differently at different ages," he says. "We can either support young people in expressing their sexuality in healthy ways, or we can attempt to prevent them from being knowledgeable." Rejection of sex education by schools can breed shame, fear and a lack of decision-making skills in young people, Klein says. "I don't think that any parent wants their child to feel ashamed of their body or feel guilty about their natural, healthy interest in sexuality. I don't think that any parent wants their child to engage in bad decision making." Klein says he was also told it's relatively uncommon for adult Hongkongers to kiss and hug in front of their children. One concern expressed at the seminar was how to reconcile parents not talking frankly about sex - the norm in Hong Kong - if young people are watching films showing adults being intimate. "The way I approach that is to remind everybody I work with that there are some goals we all share," Klein says. "We want marriages - if they want to get married - to be fulfilling and stable, and one way is to have people participating in physical affection. Whether that involves sex or not, we know that physical affection - the feeling of being cared about - contributes to stability in relationships. I've never been in a community where they thought adults having stable relationships was a bad idea." Grace Lee Ming-ying, the Family Planning Association's education manager, says that overall there have been signs of improvement in the past decade, and teachers are now promoting sex education. However, it is still often delivered in a lecture format, and the content is limited to the delivery of factual information about sexual development or reproduction. Difficulties children face growing up are ignored, she says, and many teachers struggle to deal with challenging issues such as sexual orientation and compensated dating, at a time when youngsters are becoming more sexually precocious and having sex at an earlier age. "Life skills include critical thinking and decision making, identifying and resisting social and peer pressure, talking about the boundaries of intimacy with a partner," Lee says. "Practising safer sex should also be covered to help youngsters exercise responsibility in relationships." We can either support young people in expressing their sexuality in healthy ways, or we can attempt to prevent them from being knowledgeable Dr Marty Klein Local schools follow the Education Bureau's guidelines and provide sex education mostly in so-called moral, civic and national education classes in secondary schools, and in general studies in primary schools. The bureau says the aim is to foster students' positive values and attitudes. In reality, Lee says, the importance of sex education is still played down because students do not sit exams on the subject, and too little time is devoted to it. "Very often it is just one of the components of an optional interdisciplinary general education course, which takes up less than 5 per cent of the school's teaching hours." According to Julie McGuire, sex education begins in Year Four at the international school where she teaches, and it looks mainly at the body parts and reproduction on a simple level. In Year Five, reproduction and birth are handled in more depth, with puberty, changes in the body, "and an important one that is sometimes forgotten - the changes in emotions/feelings that come with raging hormones" - covered in Year Six. "We use videos [from Britain - with children taking the main role], books and small group discussion, which greatly helps children ask the questions they really want to ask," she says. Parents may preview the videos at school and ask questions beforehand, and may even pull their children out of the sessions, she adds, but this rarely happens. Teachers try to communicate the importance of sex education and "try to make it a natural part of the curriculum if possible; for example, tying it to a unit about the body or ... identity. The more adult areas of sex education are left to the secondary schools, such as safe sex and same-sex relationships."