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Let’s Talk: Who’s to blame for our poor sex education?

By Clara How, Jul 30, 2020

As a writer, I’ve spoken to many women about a diverse range of topics: parenthood, relationships, sexuality, and discrimination. Women have shared how little they understood about contraception and sexual matters, or how they have been mistreated by those who did not understand boundaries and consent, or how they still hear comments like “you deserved it, look what you are wearing”. 

The problem, many said, is because of the poor understanding our youths have about sex education.

It was a problem I immediately thought of as a failing of our schools’ education system. Personal experience made me cynical that sex education in schools was effective. But given that the classes I received were well over a decade ago, I wanted to ask educators, young adults, and people who work with youth today this question: why do our youth have so many gaps in their knowledge? 

This is a two-part series on how we can more effectively teach youth about sexual matters. The second part of this series will focus on the emotional, abstract aspects of sex education, and how parents are better positioned to discuss these grey areas with their children.

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I don’t remember much about my sex education in school, but the little that I remember isn’t a great memory. 

I remember the facilitator asking a male and female student to stand before the class. One was told to hold a slice of bread with peanut butter, and the other held a slice with jam. A story was spun about how they engaged in sexual activity after a date. The facilitator told them to put the bread together to form a sandwich, and then to pull the slices apart. The smooth surface of peanut butter was now smeared with jam. 

My takeaway: once you have sex, you’re tainted. You can’t be the same again. 

My other takeaway: thanks for ruining peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for me.

The course was taught by an external vendor, and I wish I could tell you if they taught us about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. But the truth is that all that stuck was the visceral memory of the PBJ sandwich.  

Looking back, my informal sex education was a patchwork of information gleaned over the years from the Internet, friends, mass media, and most importantly, personal experience. 

In many ways, I got lucky. I got lucky that no one took advantage of the little information that I knew, and that I was with respectful partners. I got lucky that I had friends to have open conversations with. For someone who never talked about sex with her parents, and retained nothing useful from perfunctory sex education in school, I got really, really lucky. 

The issue is that it should not have come down to luck. The problematic sex education taught in schools has been a topic that has been widely discussed, with the Ministry of Education responding to feedback. Since 2017, schools no longer use external vendors, preferring to stick with the Ministry’s programme, which has been updated. 

A teacher I spoke with (who declined to be named) confirmed that the scenarios given to students today are more current. When she first started teaching sex education a few years ago, the video resources looked like they “were from the 90s”, which made for awkward viewing. She shared that on top of contraception and protection against STDs, the syllabus includes building healthy relationships, self-esteem, and establishing boundaries. 

But the complaints continued. Our sex education has been criticised for a syllabus that still preaches abstinence, for not being sufficiently engaging, for being heteronormative and not answering the difficult questions. It’s criticism that’s backed by worrying statistics. 

In a survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) and Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2018, more than half of respondents aged 18 and below who have engaged in sexual activity did not take precautions to avoid pregnancy or STDs. For half of the questions on sexual health, more than half of the youths surveyed were unsure of the answer, or answered incorrectly. These questions were asked of a group of almost 800 youths aged between 16 to 25 years old. 

While consent is taught in the classroom, I was told that it is taught with the assumption that sex was not going to take place. With this assumption of abstinence and heteronormative relationships, it limits a lot of scenario-based discussions.

But while a lot of blame has been levelled at the schools, I thought of who I was as an awkward 17-year-old. I asked myself: if I had a thorough, inclusive sex education lesson with a teacher who was engaging and receptive, would I have retained more information? Would I have asked questions that I really wanted to know the answers to? 

It’s impossible to say for sure, but I don’t think the teenage me would. 

Sex to me then was still foreign and taboo, because it was never spoken about at home. The idea of asking about sex in front of all my classmates would have mortified me, because I was afraid that I would be seen a certain way. 

So perhaps the question should be this: when teenagers have a question about sex, who do they trust to turn to? Is this person or source giving good advice?

When it comes to questions, it’s clear that they’re in abundance. Shy, an online platform that aims to improve sexual health literacy among youths, shared with me that they received 100 questions when they ran an open call on sexual awareness. 

“We realised that the things that people are unaware of aren’t complicated,” says Kushagra Goyal, one of the four young adults who runs Shy. “Many people didn’t know the answers to simple questions, like how to have sex from the biological perspective.” Shy tries to answer these questions by creating content that’s fact checked by medical professionals. 

It was Ruth Ong from Shy who said that we should not be pinning the main responsibility on one institution to educate the youth. “To me, sex education can be fronted by three pillars. The schools can cover the biological, theoretical aspects. Families can impact personal values such as religious beliefs. Friends can share their experiences,” she suggested. “Underpinning these pillars should be a climate of understanding that this topic is not taboo.” 

It was a suggestion that struck me. I had always thought schools shouldered most of the responsibility, but Ruth pointed out that they have to be careful about respecting certain beliefs, especially religious ones. “Different families have different beliefs, so what the schools teach needs to cover the basics without causing offence. So there must be supplementary education.” 

It’s a fair point, and it’s something that is already considered, said Viv Loh, a teacher who has taught sex education for 23 years. Before a sex education class, parents are given a consent form, and can choose to opt their children out. It doesn’t happen often (one or two out of 30), with some Muslim parents preferring to discuss sex in lieu of pending nuptials. 

Consent, she said, is an area that sorely needs improvement in how it is taught.

“It is taught as something where you can use your common sense. But a clear syllabus is needed to point out that if you cross certain lines, it is a criminal act. We also need to explain more abstract aspects of consent, like what someone means when he or she says certain things.” She suggested that boys be taught as early as Secondary Three about how to deal with sexual urges . 

Another issue is school counsellors not being well-equipped to answer challenging questions, such as those broached by queer students who feel marginalised, or bullied. Counsellors are also unfortunately bound by legal constraints, and can only discuss such matters within the context of Singapore’s penal code. 

Viv also pointed out that sex education classes can be just as awkward for teachers as they are for students. While she is comfortable with students asking curious questions or explaining what fellatio means, she understands that not all teachers are as open. 

“There’s the ick factor, even for teachers. We’re pressurised to be a guru in teaching this topic, but you don’t need to be a sexpert to teach sex education,” she said. Unlike subjects such as physics where you require qualifications, Viv believes that sex education requires teachers to be equipped with the right diction. “Once you remove the taboo factor, sex education can be like any lesson on health.” 

If there was one thing I took away from our conversation, it was that as adults, there is a tendency to avoid thinking of teens as sexual beings. But that is exactly what they are — young adults experiencing desires and urges.

If we continue to ignore this fact, then the danger lies in our youth trying to figure out the changes in their bodies and desires on their own without adequate guidance.

There are multiple narratives about what sex means and entails. There’s the Internet and mass media, but you only Google what you know to ask. Most teenagers ask their friends or partners*, but another teenager might not be the best person to give advice. Ideally, adults in a position of guidance should be the ones to destigmatise sex – unfortunately, the majority of youth do not turn to their parents for advice, according to the 2018 AWARE survey.

It’s apparent that the ick factor that Viv speaks of translates to parents as well. 70 percent of parents** conceded that the primary responsibility of educating children about sex should come from them. However, only approximately half are comfortable in discussing sexual health and relationships. The biggest reason for their discomfort is a belief that they don’t know how to begin the conversation.

With so many avenues providing different narratives and sex still thought of as taboo, is there any wonder that our youth have gaps in their knowledge?

These gaps, everyone whom I spoke with agreed, is one reason behind the worrying number of sexual assault cases reported in Singapore. “Cases of upskirt pictures, voyeurism, sexual harassment - all these problems come out of the woodwork if we continue to patronise our youth by assuming they are not thinking about sex,” said Viv. 

Zuby Eusofe, founder of The Healing Circle (a safe space for queer Muslims), shared that a number of youth don’t even know that they have been assaulted, because of a grey understanding of consent. 

“A lot of youth like to explore, but they don’t know the precautionary measures,” she said. “We need to teach them that it is okay to be curious, but curiosity also has boundaries.” A trained youth facilitator, she has spoken with young adults who shared that they have felt peer pressured and challenged into pursuing sexual acts that they might not want to do. “They tell me, ‘I thought I gave consent, I didn’t want people to think I’m chickening out.’"

It might not be the solution to a far-reaching problem, but what is heartening is the number of initiatives created to supplement what is already taught in schools. On top of Shy, there is also Ease, a Singapore-based digital start-up that offers sexual healthcare services, and a plethora of online platforms that seek to normalise discussions on sex. 

AWARE also runs its own workshop for parents titled Birds & Bees, which gives parents the tools to start conversations about sex, relationships and consent with their children in an open, non-judgmental way. 

“Families vary so much in attitudes that there is no one size fits all approach,” says Tan Joo Hymn, a facilitator and creator of Birds & Bees. “Parents can take a bigger role, but the reality is that they have no idea how. They need to spend the time and effort. If a child is queer, and the parents make derogatory remarks, naturally the child will seek answers elsewhere.” 

Birds & Bees targets building communication and listening skills. Specific scenarios are discussed, such as if a person involved was drunk, to get parents thinking a little deeper about their own values and biases, and what they want to teach their children.

“Our youth are intelligent people, and when we don’t give them the full picture and censor information, we are doing them a disservice,” says Joo Hymn. “What we can do is to equip our children with the right tools for them to develop their own moral compass.”

If there’s one thing that we need to get past, it is the judgment that if a young person asks about sex, it must mean that they are sexually active, or are considering having sex. It was a narrative that my teenage self bought into, and the reason why I feared talking about sex.

But here’s the thing: giving teenagers information about sex does not mean encouraging them to have sex. It empowers them to form opinions, and make life decisions. This holds true regardless of whether your personal belief is abstinence, or otherwise.

So, who’s to blame for our young adults’ poor sex education? The answer isn’t as simple as pointing the finger at one institution, or one body of people. Sexual matters are intensely personal. There can be no one source that is fail proof in educating teenagers, because everyone’s understanding of sex is so unique. 

Parents have their own internalised bias, schools have to work within legal guidelines, teenagers have a mind of their own. I had always thought schools were responsible for failing me and my classmates, but in hindsight, the focus should be how all of us can erase the ick factor, so there can be a holistic view of sex. 

Sex isn’t particularly mysterious or awkward or taboo — we’ve just positioned it that way. The only way we can demystify it is to try to encourage conversations about sex, and speak in a way that withholds judgment.

I might not be a parent or a teacher, but I can be an adult figure to a friend, to a niece, to a child, or to anyone who has a question about sex. We owe it to the 17-year-olds with burning questions, who feel like they can’t put their hand up to ask them.

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Part two of this series on sex education will be published next Monday. Check in to read a parent’s perspective on teaching her child about the emotional complexities of sex education.

Visit Birds & Bees, The Healing Circle and Shy for more information.

 

*41 percent of youths identified partners as their first choice to discuss sexual issues with, and close to 30 percent identified friends as their first choice. These were the two top choices as compared to professionals, parents and others. 

** This survey was conducted by independent research agency Blackbox and AWARE, aimed at exploring parents’ views on sex education in Singapore. 564 respondents were surveyed between January and February in 2020.

Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about the good, the bad and the ugly about relationships past and present, the prejudice I’ve received about birth control, and the shared responsibility of contraception. 

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