Sex Ed & China: Ambivalent to the Core

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If you’ve been following my travel blog, you know that I’ve been in China, training sex education teachers and psychology graduate students. China has 1.35 BILLION people (4 times the size of the U.S.), and has been involved in policy debates regarding family planning and sexual behavior for decades. They’re currently reevaluating their “one family, one child policy,” and of course sex education is part of the policy debate.

The other night I lectured for two hours to sex education teachers-in-training at Chengdu University, in south-central China. The topic was “Teaching Sexuality Education: How? Why?”

About 100 students, most between 19-24, attended. Naturally, over ¾ were female. A handful of faculty also attended. Like every indoor space in southern China during the winter, the room was cold, and everyone wore a coat.

I talked about the usual stuff: that healthy children are interested in sex from infancy; that adults have an affirmative responsibility to handle this sexuality in a positive way; that sex ed is education for relationships with self and other.

But, I emphasized, the effective sex education teacher needs way more than information and a curriculum; the teacher needs a healthy attitude about sexuality. That’s mostly what I’m here to discuss, I said.

And that was the biggest issue for them. Knowing what a clitoris is is one thing. Being able to say the word is another. If you can’t do that, you’ll never get your students comfortable with saying it.

These student teachers were unable to say the word. And it wasn’t just in the class—they acknowledged they’d never say it in private, either. So of course I had them say it a few times, until they were laughing. And then we talked about why this is important.

“This isn’t the way sex education is taught here,” one said. I remembered my mentor Sol Gordon’s critique of 1980s American sex education as being too fact-based: “a relentless pursuit of fallopian tubes,” he used to complain.

I asked for questions periodically, but the students were too shy to ask many. I told them there’s no room for politeness in sex education, which I think confused some of them. In the end, we accomplished a lot (I’m told), and then there were goodbyes all the way around.

Afterwards the faculty invited me to a little banquet. About 10 of us sat in a freezing restaurant (everyone in a coat!), chowing down on stuff that I didn’t recognize, and mostly didn’t like. The big challenge of such events is to smile while swallowing things that don’t taste, well, completely cooked. I’m not blaming the food, but later on I was glad I’d brought raisins and nuts all the way from California.

The conversation at the meal was disconcerting. These people were supposedly the progressive thinkers in China, both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. But like so much in this country, the “progressive ideas” had strict limits, and the thinking changed abruptly as soon as we touched those limits. In this case, those limits included pornography, premarital sex, and the internet.

My hosts suggested that censoring the internet was important to protect young people from sexual imagery. But they weren’t talking about the hard-core stuff that concerns many Americans; they were talking about Playboy. “It’s just naked ladies!” I blurted out in shock. More composed, I asked what was dangerous about that. I was told it gives people bad ideas, leads to crime, and undermines society. Those arguments are sadly familiar to me, but are generally not applied to something so benign.

Besides, my hosts said, the government was just responding to parental concerns. Parents don’t want their teens using computers because of potential exposure to “bad things.” And what about the educational value of computers for teens? No, parents (supposedly) don’t think the risk is worth it. Given that China’s leadership tells its people exactly what they need and what they will have, I found it completely disingenuous to suggest that the government’s internet censorship was a response to public demand.

With all the wonderful advantages that a democratic system offers, I found China’s justification for internet censorship depressingly similar to America’s.

Nevertheless, they are developing a national sex education consciousness and program, and they are investing money in training teachers. They are examining the value of various curricula. And while their programs don’t exactly encourage premarital sex, they aren’t obsessed with abstinence. In that respect, they’re one up on us.

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