Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:38 PM CST – China


Sex Education

Teaching Taboo

As the teen abortion rate continues to rise, educators are calling for a sex education paradigm with Chinese characteristics drawing on “traditional values, virtues and esthetics.” But is this just another way to avoid directly addressing the issue of sex in education?

Hangzhou city holds its first sex education expo, September 2006 Photo by Shi Jianxue/CFP

“Most sexual knowledge obtained from the media is not scientific, and school education is responsible for ensuring the media has a positive influence on children.”

On an ordinary mid-September day, in a private hospital in Beishatan neigh­borhood, northwestern Beijing, eight abortions were conducted in three hours. Sev­en out of the eight patients were young women around 20 years old, with the youngest one claiming to be 18. However, doctors remarked that every one of them looked far younger than they claimed to be.

According to a medical staff member in this hospital, many young girls under the age of 18 have come to the hospital for abortions since early September. “Most of the underage girls come by themselves and then leave the hos­pital alone after the procedure.” Another staff member surnamed Zou affirmed the trend, “Usually, during the first two weeks of the new school semester, we see a 50 percent increase in the number of adolescent abortions performed in this hospital.”

A receptionist at another private hospital in Beijing’s Haidian District told the Beijing Morning Post that after the summer vacation ends, the hospital sees a surge in demand for abortions. “According to our estimates, girls aged between 14 and 17 make up the majority of these cases.”

Zhang Xiaoji, program director for the China Population Education Center’s “Green Apple Home” Project, explained to the media that according to their research, some 3 percent of high school students nationwide have had at least one sexual experience, a rate that allegedly rises to 30 or even 40 percent in certain schools.


Many academics have called for a change in values of China’s birth-control driven national sex education policy, arguing that the chang­ing moral values of Chinese youngsters are not being catered for in school. Studies conducted among college students have found that the Internet has become most Chinese young people’s primary source of “sex education,” par­ticularly for males. The central government’s reticence in dealing with the issue of sex and sexuality has previously been blamed for surges in new HIV/AIDS infections and is now bear­ing the brunt of criticism for the rising rate of teen abortions.

The Ministry of Education (MOE), though having begun tentatively to introduce sex edu­cation programs in select schools, has not yet made sex education a compulsory course at national level. The official reason is that educa­tional authorities are concerned that teaching contraception in schools is tantamount to en­couraging students to engage in premarital sex.

Li Yinhe, a prominent sexologist, once criti­cized the education authorities for these pur­ported concerns. “The relevant government departments choose to adopt an ‘ostrich policy,’ taking for granted that anything goes, so long as they don’t see the consequences. This is the reason why up till now, the [positive] effects of middle school sex education are negligible.”

During the sexual revolution in the US and Europe in the 1960s, most governments ad­opted a “hands-off” attitude toward sex and sexuality. While some blame the relaxation of sexual morals for the high rates of teenage preg­nancy, abortion and venereal disease currently recorded in the West, many researchers argue that these rates were always high, but legal and social restrictions prevented them from being reported.

Starting from the 1970s, the US started to provide adolescents with teaching materials on contraception and prevention of venereal dis­ease. This type of education was then purely health-oriented, having little to do with ethics or the emotional importance of healthy sexual relationships. Critics of US sex education point to this separation of health from psychological wellbeing as a reason for the ongoing prob­lem of teen pregnancy. Yang Suping, from the Education Institute of Xinan University, Chongqing, wrote that according to statistics released by an American NGO, after receiv­ing education on contraception, the possibility of 14-year-old girls becoming sexually active rose by 50 percent; another study showed 15 to 17 year old girls are “more likely” to engage in sexual activity following lessons on proper condom use.

Rising teen pregnancy and abortion rates have polarized the debate on school sex educa­tion in the US. Led by Christian family groups and other faith organizations, one camp have pointed to “moral decay” as the root of the problem, with some US states adopting an abstinence-based curriculum encouraging young people to entirely avoid premarital sex. In the last decade or so, over one-third of pub­lic schools in the US added “abstinence educa­tion” into the school curriculum, advocating postponement of sexual activities and instruct­ing the students on safe sex. Fueled by fund­ing from Christian organizations, this trend continues despite a report sponsored by the US Department of Health revealing that ab­stinence-only programs are ineffective in cur­tailing the rate of teen pregnancy. Indeed, the US states where abstinence-only sex education programs are most prevalent have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world.

Scientific research institutes such as the American Psychological Association, along with civil rights groups and educational activ­ists have suggested that, rather than some great “moral collapse,” the excessively clinical content of the curriculum has separated love from sex in the minds of youngsters. These groups ad­vocate a sex education curriculum that incor­porates healthy sexual relationships, commit­ment and the psychology of sex into lessons dealing with contraception and sexual biology. The debate between these two increasingly en­trenched camps rages on around the world.


“Sex education should include sexual ethics, either for primary or middle school students,” said Ye Bing, a holder of a doctorate degree in education from Suzhou University. He added that “exposure to the Internet,” books or TV programs has been the main driving force behind China’s own sexual revolution. In his view, schools need to provide systematic sex education that contextualizes mainstream dialogue on sex and offers life guidance for stu­dents. “Most sexual knowledge obtained from the media is not scientific, and school educa­tion is responsible for ensuring that the media has a positive influence on children.”

Wang Ruotao, director of the China Na­tional Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention (CDC) Ethics Committee, told our reporter that developing sexual awareness and experiencing sexual urges are biological phenomena which cannot be avoided. In the information age, young people can easily access explicit sexual images online. In his view, trying to ignore this phenomenon is unwise. Almost everyone seems to agree that more comprehen­sive sex education is needed – what they fail to agree on is when young people should start to learn about sex.

Deng Yu, mother of three-year-old Paipai, was recently informed by her daughter’s kin­dergarten teacher that sex education would be arranged for the class. She was hesitant to allow her daughter to participate. “Paipai never asked me where she came from. If she ever does, I’ll tell her how I fell in love with her father. Right now, she won’t understand these stories of sperm and ova.” After reading a translation of a German pre-school primer on human re­production, Paipai’s mother has decided that such knowledge is “unsuitable” for Chinese children.

Han Siping, an official from the Hangzhou City Education Bureau, insists that sex educa­tion should start in the higher grades of elemen­tary school, as is common practice in Europe. In Wang Ruotao’s opinion, elementary school students should be shielded from detailed ex­planations of sexual biology or graphic descrip­tions of sexual contact. “We shouldn’t be im­posing these ideas before children begin to be aware of the differences between the sexes,” he told NewsChina.

Chinese Puzzle

In Wang Ruotao’s view, formal and detailed sex education should begin with the onset of pu­berty – at 12 years of age for girls and 13 years of age for boys, with younger students receiving basic physiological and anatomical instruction. Responsibility in both sex and relationships should also be a central theme of the cur­riculum. According to Wang, the teaching of proper condom use can wait at this stage, until senior middle school, when students are 15 to 18 years old, when teachers can also begin to contextualize sexual knowledge their students may have acquired outside the classroom.

Wang told NewsChina that sound sex educa­tion helps improve a person’s overall quality as a human being, touching on ethics, morality, law, gender equality and human rights. Fur­thermore, he believes that sex education should meet the needs of rapid social and cultural development, such as cultivating the students’ neutral attitudes toward homosexuality, a phe­nomenon increasingly widely acknowledged by all but China’s authorities.

Yang Suping indicates that “character educa­tion” is the key to sex education. Yang agrees with Thomas Lickona’s opinion in his book Sex, Character and the College Culture: The Ne­glected Issue in which he claims sex education based on character education is the only safe and responsible choice for young unmarried adolescents.

Wang Ruotao believes China needs to de­velop sex education to suit China’s particular needs. “We are not blind to the experiences of Western nations in promoting sex education, but at the same time we should absorb positive elements from the sexual morality inherent in Chinese culture. For example, the traditional educational emphasis on mutual devotion and commitment to love and marriage, and one’s obligation to the family are still the essence of Chinese values,” said Wang.

Xu Zhenlei, chairman of the China Sexol­ogy Association, thinks that “sexual shyness” is deep-rooted in the psyche of the average Chinese adult. In sex education, it is very im­portant to preserve this sense of shyness which makes people cherish love, rather than making sex a purely biological act.  

(Qian Wei and Song Di also contributed reporting)

Tags: sex education

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