From left: Julia Sun, co-founder of Sticky Rice Love, with volunteers Ivan Ho and Miki So. Photo: Nora Tam

Sticky Rice Love offers a forum for under-25s to discuss their sexual problems

Online platform bridges gap in sex education

Will I get pregnant if I run a red light?" This is a question written in Chinese posted on Sticky Rice Love, an online sex education platform for local youth. The question has nothing to do with driving; it is youthful slang for whether it is possible to become pregnant during menstruation.

Julia Sun Wai-han, 23, is the director of the site, which publishes articles about sex and hosts a forum for people under 25. It's filling a gap in sex education for this age group, who can ask questions they don't feel comfortable asking their parents, teachers or friends.

Anyone can post questions, and do so anonymously. A volunteer from Sticky Rice Love, who will have received some basic training in sexual health matters, will promptly write a response.

The forum is moderated by two Hong Kong-licensed sex therapists, one of whom is also a Caritas Hong Kong social worker. According to Sun, the forum has about 1,000 hits, and three to four new questions each week. The website also periodically publishes articles by volunteers about sex and love.

Sticky Rice Love is the translation of the name of a Chinese glutinous rice ball dessert. The premise is that talking about sex and relationships should be as common as talking about food.

Sun co-founded Sticky Rice Love last July with a partner based in Britain, after graduating from Chinese University. The social enterprise now has 15 volunteers. These include working professionals, and students at secondary and university level.

"Our mission is to empower young people to make their own decisions regarding sex and love," says Sun, who also works as a teaching assistant.

The forum promotes neither sexual activity nor abstinence, but seeks to empower the individual to consider the physical, social or emotional consequences of their options.

But Sticky Rice Love does speak out against illegal or non-consensual activity.

Sun had been interested in issues of sex and love for a few years. She realised how pertinent this was when some friends had abortions and suffered emotionally as a result.

The site does not try and supplant the role that parents and schools have to play in promoting healthy values in sex and relationships. Instead, it offers a platform for young people to talk about such issues with their peers, who can offer support and help them make well-informed decisions.

The Family Planning Association of Hong Kong supports Sticky Rice Love by providing volunteers with training in sexual health.

Grace Lee Ming-ying, the association's education manager, says Sticky Rice Love will benefit sex education in Hong Kong in general. "If parents and teachers read the questions on the forum, they will understand the questions young people today are asking."

The association's 2011 Youth Sexuality Study surveyed 1,223 people aged 18 to 27. Out of 70 people who said they'd had sex in the previous six months and sought advice on contraception, 64 per cent of males and 52 per cent of females said they learned from friends, while 59 per cent of males and 33 per cent of females said they learned from the internet.

Sexual health permeates many areas of our lives, physically and emotionally
Julia Sun, Sticky Rice love co-founder

As young people attain much of their knowledge about sex from the internet, Lee thinks that Sticky Rice Love is useful for pointing young people to appropriate online resources.

Sun also noticed a trend in the questions being asked. "It seems that boys are more interested in asking questions about masturbation or their sexual organs, whereas girls are more interested in asking about relationships," she says.

Sun also realised that answering young people's questions is not enough. The volunteers often need to engage in dialogue with the person on the forum before they reveal their real question.

For example, one girl posted a question asking whether it is normal for girls to masturbate. After a volunteer began to talk to her on the forum, she revealed that she owned a sex toy, and her biggest fear was that her parents might discover it.

"Sexual health permeates so many areas of our lives, physically and emotionally," says Sun. "In Hong Kong, sex is still considered a taboo subject.

"If an individual associates sex with shame, this may damage his or her ability to enjoy sex in the future, when it becomes a necessary part of life, such as in marriage," she says.

Sticky Rice Love was selected as one of the projects supported by the Make a Difference Institute, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation which encourages young people to come up with creative solutions for problems they see in their community.

Sun received start-up funding from Make a Difference, and gained access to professionals for consulting, all of which she needed as a recent university graduate.

Sun considers sex education to be insufficient in schools. She plans to design online courses on sex education based on the most sought-after information on the forum.

Sex education is included in the Education Bureau's guideline for moral and civic education, but it is not mandatory for schools.

A bureau spokesman maintains "elements of sex education are included in the school curricula of pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in accordance with children's developmental stages".

Social workers have kept Sun up to date with the ever-evolving challenges that young people face regarding sex and relationships. She considers it unrealistic for schools to adapt their curriculum to keep up.

"We learned that there are now young people who are tricked into sending off naked pictures of themselves via WhatsApp, and then become victims of bullying," says Sun. "We adapt our online service to keep up with the times."

Sun thinks that parents do not always have the communication skills and relevant knowledge to discuss sex with their children. She supports the government and Family Planning Association's efforts to provide sex education training for parents.

She is also trying to work with religious groups, so that they can learn how to answer questions about the religious values that pertain to sex.

"If an individual is choosing abstinence because of their faith, we want him or her to clearly understand why they are making this decision," says Sun.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Taboo or not taboo