Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017, 6:54 AM CST – China

Society

Sex Education

Progress or Pornography?

A new sex education primer aimed at elementary school-age children has caused a storm of controversy in China, with some hailing it as progressive and others calling it “gratuitous and reckless”

Photo by Zhen Hongge

“This kind of education goes counter to the laws of cognitive development and sexual psychology.”

For decades, the majority of Chinese children who asked where babies come from were consistently told that children were either born through the cracks of stones or were simply “found” by their parents. Conservatism with regards to sex and sexuality meant there was little information available to counter these bizzare myths.

Despite decades of national championing of science over superstition, these stories were not only tolerated but even unofficially adopted by schools as the best way to deflect childish questioning about sex and reproduction right up until the 1970s. Since the “Reform and Opening-up” policy was adopted in 1978, quickly followed by the controversial One Child Policy designed to slow the rapid birth rate, sex education has remained focused on contraception and sexual health. Few parents or educators dare to risk “normalizing” sex and sexuality with frank, open discussion of the biology, mechanics and emotional importance of sex.

Self Study

As in many countries where even the mention of sex is taboo, Chinese children, especially teenagers, have to fall back on friends, literature, movies or the Internet for their sex education. The taboo surrounding sex and pornography means it is almost impossible for the authorities to determine how many young Chinese people have access to pornography through the Internet, but the viral popularity of Japanese porn stars and other anecdotal evidence would suggest that the “Great Firewall” of Internet supervision is failing to serve its primary stated purpose. Similarly, while it is clear that young people are more likely to enter into romantic relationships in school than ever before, just how many young Chinese people have had some sexual experience prior to adulthood remains a discussion off-limits to all but the most daring sociologists.

At the same time, Chinese parents, many of whom are less informed about the basic biology of sex than their own offspring, struggle to broach the topic even with each other. As has happened in many Western cultures, societal embarrassment about sex has thrust responsibility onto educational institutions.

In 2008, the Ministry of Education included sex education in the national health and hygiene curriculum, clearly stipulating that sex education should be taught from elementary school through senior high. According to the curriculum breakdown, students in first and second grade of elementary school should learn “basic knowledge about puberty, health and physical growth,” including “knowledge that answers the question: ‘Where do I come from?’”

Repercussions

This August, State media revealed what it termed “explicit sexual description” in Footsteps of Growing Up, a sex education primer allegedly for students in Beijing’s Dingfuzhuang Elementary School. “Sperm are eager to come out of the testicles in father’s scrotum, and they look like small, energetic tadpoles…” ran the rather whimsical text.

“In order to allow his naughty sperm to find mom’s ovum, father puts his penis into mom’s vagina and forcefully ejaculates his sperm,” it continued. The book uses cartoon-like illustrations of a naked couple to demonstrate the reproductive process.

The media reports triggered a vehement public debate, with some criticizing it as “improper and vulgar,” and others viewing it as a sign of social progress.

Hu Ping, a Beijing-based sex educator for children, doubted whether Footsteps of Growing Up was suitable for kids under the age of 10. In her opinion, “detailed pictures and text description” should not be presented to young children. “Just like we cannot teach elementary school students higher mathematics, we should not give our kids this kind of education because it goes counter to the laws of their cognitive development and sexual psychology.” In Hu’s book Growing Up and Sex, which was published seven years ago, she describes the sexual act with the ambiguous phrase: “The bodies of the father and the mother have mutual contact.”

Hu Ping’s description of sex as “body contact,” however, has already drawn fire for being liable to cause confusion among young children. “This might lead children to ask ‘If I touch someone’s hand, will I have a baby?’” Hu Zhen, a professor from Chengdu University and director of the Sichuan Province Youth Sex Education Office, told NewsChina. “Children at this age are still in the primary developmental stages and can hardly distinguish between sex organs and fingers and noses,” she continued. “Why shouldn’t such a simple question be explained directly? This only shows we adults are overcomplicated. ”

Li Yinhe, a well-known Chinese sexologist and a vocal critic of sexual conservatism, argued publicly that Footsteps of Growing Up is “not premature or ahead of the times. Its publication instead simply indicates hard-won social progress.”

“We have been overly abstinent for too long, and now the time for liberation is coming,” she added.

Which Way?

Some have taken issue with media “sensationalizing” a niche publication. “The book is not yet a textbook but a supplementary reader for selected schools,” Zhang Meimei, director of the Sex Education Department of Capital Normal University and contributor to Footsteps of Growing Up, told NewsChina. The book is not a formal publication and cannot yet be distributed to children. Indeed, there are various similar books on children’s sex education used by different schools in various parts of the country. It took two years for Footsteps of Growing Up to be compiled on the basis of 500 teachers’ field research in 30 elementary and middle schools in Beijing, according to Zhang. The controversy surrounding the issue meant the book’s editors were meticulous about hitting the right tone to make it accessible to younger children, explaining some of the more whimsical elements of the text which reflect a more general “cutesy” teaching style adopted in elementary school teaching.

For example, to answer the question of “where do I come from?” a teacher in Beijing’s Hepingli No.1 Elementary School thus describes sex to her students: “Little Sperm X lives inside father’s body together with his 300 million brothers… Little Ovum O is the only child in her mother’s body and is willing to make friends with little X and his brothers… but their journey to meet up with each other is long and arduous…” Following the introduction, the teacher then arranges a role-play, asking the boys to play sperm and one girl to play the ovum. After a short race, one boy emerges the “winner.”

Zhang Meimei told our reporter that over 80 per cent of the content in Footsteps of Growing Up has been taught in Dingfuzhuang No. 2 Primary School, and that this school started its sex education course as early as 2001. According to the principal, the school is planning to extend sex education to more grades, and classes will also seek advice from parents or hold training courses to familiarize parents with the necessity for comprehensive sex education.

Cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Shenzhen are among the “early-bird” network of cities and municipalities that have introduced comprehensive sex education curricula. Since 2008, an annual symposium has been held to allow city educators to share ideas. However, there remain controversies even among the participating experts. In teaching practice, some experts advocate the avoidance of certain words such as “intercourse,” “sex organ” or “ejaculation,” while others support their direct usage, arguing that further taboos will only lead to confusion in the classroom.

Amid the excitement and noise surrounding Footsteps of Growing Up, Zhang Meimei, the sponsor of the book, said to NewsChina, “Sex education requires a quiet environment for scientific research and should be pushed forward slowly and steadily. Otherwise, it could backfire.

Shortage of Teachers

In China, sex studies and sexology have yet to be listed as an academic major at college level. As a result, China has a lack of professionals in this field. In elementary and high schools, sex education is typically handled by teachers with other specialties such as ethics or biology. Most are on temporary transfer from other departments, meaning there may be a tendency to gloss over or even avoid certain subjects entirely when discussing sex with students.

According to Hu Zhen, sex education teachers need a wider range of knowledge than teachers in other subjects. “Professional sex education teachers should have knowledge not only of physiology, psychology, sociology, law and ethics, but also of literature, language and activity organization,” Hu told NewsChina.

The personal values of sex education teachers are also important. One young teacher in her twenties told NewsChina, “Some older teachers tell their classes that premarital sex should be avoided at all costs. But I myself won’t say so to my students, as that doesn’t reflect the experience of my generation.”

“In today’s China, the value system surrounding sex is still quite ambiguously defined and confusing. The teachers’ own attitudes toward sex will directly decide how they conduct sex education classes,” she added.

Xu Zhenlei, from the China Sexology Association, who has voiced support for Footsteps of Growing Up, admitted that the “real effects” of sex education are hard to evaluate. In her view, this is the primary reason why the book has aroused so much controversy.

Despite the ongoing debate, educators are continuing to attempt to make schools the pioneers of sex education. In late August, a new trial textbook called Boys and Girls started to be sold in bookstores in Shanghai. This year, Zhang Meimei will extend the program sponsored by her team to cover 48 schools in Beijing. In the second phase of the program’s trial teaching, sensitive terms such as “intercourse” and “homosexuality” will be included. However Zhang told our reporter that this second phase could take even longer to enter the mainstream than the first.

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