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SEXtember: The problem with Asian sex education (or the lack of it)

Gayertree Subramaniam

Fri Sep 14 2012


SEX education should set the foundation of safe sex practices that lasts a lifetime. But, as Gayertree Subramaniam and her friends found out, sometimes cultural taboos can get in the way of an informative lesson.  

It was first period at school and the teacher had just announced there was going to be a presentation by the school nurse.

I knew what it was going to be about. An older cousin had forewarned me to expect an excruciatingly embarrassing ordeal when I reached secondary school.

I went to an all girls’ school, you see, and nothing was out of bounds among us. Sure, we had giggled over and speculated sheepishly about our changing bodies, the opposite sex and our newest celebrity crush. But there was one thing all of us were, and still are, deeply uncomfortable about discussing – sex.

The recess bell rung and we gathered in the classroom where a cacophony of nervous giggles filled the air. What ensued was an entire hour of powerpoint slides describing in vivid detail the human genitalia, graphic photos of STI – induced growths on said genitalia and what NOT to do if we didn’t want to end up pregnant.

Fair to say, the entire cohort of girls who walked out of that room on that fateful afternoon were scarred for life. It was an ill-informed and awkward affair for all involved.

‘Til this day, I struggle to understand how that lesson helped educate me. It was meant to positively inform me, but instead, it just shoved messages of  “abstinence is best” down my throat.

I wasn’t alone in this confusion. The hesitation and reluctance to discuss the need for sex education for young people in Asia is a huge problem, as Indonesian student Anisa Menur shares.

One of the most ludicrous claims I have ever heard about sex is that you go back to being a virgin again if you don’t have sex for a while,

“You may laugh, but you won’t believe how many people actually think this!”

Anisa says the way Asians associate sex with being “dirty” and “wrong” greatly hinders an open and healthy  discourse . And it’s not just because of religious or cultural opposition, but simply because it’s an uncomfortable subject to broach.

Where an educational vacuum exists on matters of sex from reliable sources, alternative ways and means of gaining access fill the void. Pornography at the click of the mouse, magazines, media and the ultimate knowledge vendors – friends and peers – plant misleading, false information that then gets put to the test. I think, why risk it?

Chinese Monash University student (and occasional Meld contributor) Gina Xing says the culture around sex in her home country is very male dominated.

The expectation of women to be conservative and willing is a big influence on the repression of sex in Chinese society , which makes it very difficult for a young girl to say ‘no’ and also to enforce the practice of safe sex,” she says.

Young girls, she adds, are unaware of the consequences of their submissiveness and inaction, falling victim to unwanted pregnancies and STIs. She feels sex, when enjoyed by both parties, should not just remain the responsibility of one person.

For Sagarika Singh-Verma, an Indian student from Monash University, the notion that talking about sex goes against Indian cultural value systems is a preposterous one.

“The Indian society is a little too conservative and the ‘S-word’ is still a marriage thing, so naturally they are opposed to providing young people with the necessary information they need to equip and empower themselves when the time comes,” she says.

Everyone can do whatever under the covers, but when it comes to an open discussion people take a step back,”

In a country where the Kama Sutra was conceived, and where the film industry has no qualms about throwing blatant sleaze or overly-sexualised screen sirens in to the faces of millions of Indians, this difference in attitude towards sexual education is, I think, hypocritical.

What then is the solution? Common sense dictates talking about sex openly should break the vicious cycle of secrecy and lack of awareness.

Singaporean student Devi Rajaram  has called for more comprehensive, engaging means of educating young people instead of tip-toeing around the subject.

“Do away with the school of thought that such issues are meant to be taboo topics!,” she says.

We all know about the birds and the bees, just tell us how to protect ourselves, instead of trying to protect us!”

As Sagarika puts it, “it all nails down to familial ties”. She reasons that unabashedly open relationships between parents and children, such as the one she has with her mother, will ease the awkwardness surrounding sex education. This, she says, is one of the most effective  ways to remove the stigma surrounding sex.

“Not having good conversations with your parents mixed with strict control results in young people hiding things from them,” she says.

Hiding means trying things out of curiosity. Trying things out of curiosity with lack of awareness equals trouble.”

All hope is not lost though. As Anisa says, people of her generation tend to be more open when it comes to talking about sex and she believes changes in attitudes will happen naturally as the generation evolves and mindsets change.

Humans are curious creatures. We are excited and enthralled by the smallest pleasures. I think, for many, the exploration of our sexualities may herald discoveries about ourselves that could be unknown to us. Our sexuality is to be celebrated and treasured, not swept under the carpet as though it is a thing of shame.

Unite to break the societal taboo about sex. Be informed, be educated, be safe. Frankness and awareness are by far the best policies.

This article presents some of the many different views we hope to share this Sextember. Find out more about the campaign and how you can contribute here.

You can also test your knowledge and see if you know the answers to the most frequently asked questions about sexual health and STIs: