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Breaking Taboos

Sex education, long taboo in China’s family and school education, has become a topic of national debate after a ground-breaking curriculum was introduced to kids

By Yi Ziyi Updated May.14

The most embarrassing question that Chinese parents fear from wide-eyed kids is “Mommy/daddy, where did I come from?”  

Blushing and shocked, parents might bite their tongues and falteringly answer: “Darling, you were collected from a trash can,” “dug up from a field,” “picked up on the street” or “sent as a gift by China Mobile after I paid the phone bill.”

In a country where most children do not receive sex education, sex and relationships have been a taboo field where educators both at home and at school fear to tread. The lack of sex education has already put millions of young people at risk of unwanted or underage pregnancy, sexual abuse and sexually transmitted infections. Chinese are still not fully prepared to equip the next generation with sexual knowledge.  

Sex education has been in the limelight since early March after a sex-ed series for primary schools was criticized by many parents for being “too graphic” and “inappropriate”. The series, called Cherish Life – A Reader on Sex Education for Children, and originally published in 2010, not only contains cartoon illustrations of sexual organs and vaginal penetration, but also introduces children to the ideas of gender equality, gay couples, protected sex and defending themselves from sexual abuse.  

The textbook was applauded by many experts and netizens as “a big move in sex education.” It stirred up a heated discussion online over what sort of content is appropriate for teaching children about sex. Many sexologists stress that Chinese parents need sex education even more than their children do.

Progressive or Pornographic? 
A mother from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, panicked when she discovered her second-grade son reading aloud from Cherish Life with sentences like “Daddy put his penis inside mommy’s vagina” and “Daddy’s sperm enters mommy’s womb.”  

Outraged, she posted several pictures from the textbooks on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, on February 28. “Is it okay to let Grade-2 kids study this? Is it really acceptable for a textbook to be written like this? I myself would blush just looking at it,” the mother wrote. The pictures she uploaded include cartoon illustrations of male and female reproductive organs and intercourse.  

The mother’s post soon went viral on Weibo, and many parents claim that the book was “graphic” and “inappropriate,” some calling it “cartoon pornography” due to its“excessive nudity.”  

“It goes too far! To show children a picture of man and woman having sex is totally unacceptable!” A user wrote. Many netizens expressed their fear that such content in textbooks would damage their children and tempt them into attempting sex themselves.  

The unidentified mother later told Beijing News that she identified herself as a “liberal” mother and isn’t against sex education in schools, but she could not stand her son reading a book on the introduction of sex with words like “penis” and “vagina.”  

Under mounting pressures, the primary school in Hangzhou has recalled all 12 books in the series.  

In response to questions, the Beijing Normal University Publishing Group, which published the series, said in an official statement: “We hope that the knowledge of sex, along with other scientific knowledge, can be taught to children in a natural and accurate way. It is important to make children aware that the reproductive organs, such as the penis, scrotum, vagina and uterus, must be well protected like other body organs.”  

In the statement, the group indicates that the books are the product of over nine years of strict design, testing, checking and revising. The group has consulted with parents, students and teachers throughout the process.  

The series, Cherish Life – A Reader on Sex Education for Children, is aimed at children between the ages of six and twelve. It includes a variety of topics concerning sex and relationships, such as reproduction, safer sex, protection from sexual abuse, homosexuality and gender equality. The content varies and deepens depending on age.  

The books teach children that men and women should be treated equally on the job market and in all professions. Students are made aware that some gender stereotypes need to be broken: woman can become outstanding police officers and astronauts, and men can be good nurses and kindergarten teachers.

Information on protection from sexual assault constitutes a big part of the whole series. Students are taught to protect their private parts from both strangers and people they know. They are made aware that sexual predators can be male or female, and that victims can be both girls and boys.  

In a Grade 5 textbook, students are taught about the issue of safer sex, especially the importance of using condoms to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.  

Sexual minority issues are taught in Grade 6 textbooks. Students are instructed that people have the right to choose to be single or married and that people of all sexual orientations deserved to be treated equally and be respected. They learn that people of different sexual orientations can choose to get married and also have the right to become parents. Same-sex marriage is not, however, yet legal in China.   

There are a large number of supporters who think highly of this series. Many netizens have applauded the series as a big step forward in a country where sex education has long lagged behind.  

“Imparting knowledge about sex to children will help teach them how to protect themselves in the future,” one Weibo user commented. “The books help children shape a very healthy, positive, tolerant attitude towards sex,” another argued.  

LGBT groups also praised the books for including the issues of gender minorities and portrayed them in a positive light.  

Fang Gang, a famous sexologist and associate professor at the Department of Applied Psychology, Beijing Forestry University, wrote in his official account on WeChat that, “Even though I didn’t participate in the books’ editing, I know every page, every line, every illustration of the books has been repeatedly discussed, checked and revised. I always recommend this series to people in need of a guide. In fact it is the only domestic primary school sex education textbooks I am willing to recommend.”  

Lurking Dangers 
Behind the controversy over the sexed textbooks lies a frightening truth: the lack of necessary sex education has put millions of Chinese children and teens at risk.  

According to an annual report by the Girls’ Protection Foundation, affiliated with the government-backed China Foundation of Culture and Arts for Children, 433 disclosed sexual assault cases concerning children under 14 were reported in 2016, with 788 victims involved – 719 girls and 59 boys. Nearly 70 percent of the reported cases were committed by acquaintances of the victims, such as teachers, neighbors, relatives and parents’ friends. Sexual assaults against boys were only recently recognized under Chinese law, and sexual assaults against teenage girls were frequently charged under an outdated and stigmatizing law as “underage prostitution” before the law was reformed.  

More than three-fourths of the victims of sexual abuse reported last year were 7 to 14 years old, but some victims were as young as 2 years old.  

The report notes that the figures do not include unreported cases. Sun Xuemei, the spokeswoman of the Girls’ Protection Foundation said that the data only “represents the tip of China’s sexual abuse iceberg.”  

In a separate study, the Girls’ Protection Foundation said nearly 90 percent of 2,000 children under 14 surveyed in six provinces and autonomous regions had never received any education on defending themselves from sexual assault. When asked “Do you know how to react when the private parts of your body are touched without permission?” 30 percent of children had no idea how to respond.   

China also has a very high abortion rate. Data published by the National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2013 show that more than 13 million abortions are conducted in the country each year. Almost half of the reported procedures were conducted on women below the age of 25.  

Moreover, teenagers are more and more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections due to their ignorance of protected sex. According to China’s National Center for STD/AIDS Prevention and Control, in 2015 there were 115,000 new HIV infections in China, 14.7 percent of which, 17,000 cases in total, were in ages 15 to 24. The annual growth rate among university and high school students is as high as 35 percent.  

Problems also occur with educators’ often fumbling attempts at talking about sex. Many teachers, due to a lack of scientific and professional sex education training, introduce mistaken, outdated and often sexist ideas of sex and relationships into the classrooms.  

For instance, in a textbook called Scientific Sex Education for High School Students, which was distributed to high schools in Jiangxi Province last year, premarital sex is described as a “shameful” and “corrupt” act for girls. Sexual relationships were defined as girls “submitting” their bodies to boys and boys “conquering” girls. The textbook warns girls of the significance of preserving chastity before marriage by stressing that “Chastity is gold; once smeared, it turns into silver; twice smeared, it turns into bronze and iron.”  

Right to Know 
Li Yinhe, one of China’s best-known sociologists and sexologists, pointed out that the biggest mistake that Chinese parents have concerning sex education is to guess at children’s thinking through the perspective of grown-ups.  

Sex, as Li stated in an interview with Southern Weekly, has been stigmatized in China’s social discourse for years. Li emphasized that parents and educators should use accurate and scientific language to teach children about sex, instead of shaping sex as “a dirty and mysterious thing.”  

“Chinese parents too easily relate sex with morality. They believe if a child knows more about sex, he or she will turn bad, and not be a good kid any more. They also self-deceptively believe that their children are as good as gold and they must know nothing about sex,” Zhang Yaohua told NewsChina.  

Zhang is an experienced educator in the sex education project of Marie Stopes International China (MSIC), a London-headquartered global organization that provides high-quality sexual and reproductive health services to millions of people across the globe. Zhang, along with the MSIC team, has conducted years of sex and reproductive health education training and lectures to teachers, students and parents around the nation.  

Children and teens’ curiosity about sex, Zhang said, is far beyond the anticipation of educators and sex experts. When he gives lectures on sex education to kids and teens, he is confronted with many tricky questions from children such as “What is sexual frigidity?”  

“Chinese students are in desperate need of a companion, a trustworthy person who can provide them with accurate information and guide them in navigating the ocean of confusions and uncertainties. They can’t find such a person in their lives. All they can do is hide their doubts and worries inside and try to sort them out on their own,” Zhang added.  

Yao Sifan, a 17-year-old high school girl from Beijing, established a sex education promoting organization called “Rodoko” with a dozen high school students in Beijing. They strive to spread knowledge of sex among their peers by drawing comics, making short videos and sharing related information on their official account on the WeChat platform.  

Yao told our reporter that it is very common for teenagers of her age or younger to watch online porn videos and read porn fiction. “Their exposure to sex is far beyond parents’ imagination. Parents always hope that their children can grow up in a sterile container, far from any danger, just as a ‘little rabbit’ in the lab grows into an ‘old rabbit,’” Yao said.  

Even though teenagers can learn something about sex from online pornography,Yao is often shocked by how far they might be misled by these videos: “Many boys, [after watching Japanese porn videos], believe that girls like to be violently treated during sex. They also believe that if a girl says ‘no’ to a boy’s sexual invitation, what she means is‘Yes, I want it’.”  

Yao is also shocked by how ignorant the teenagers can be when it comes to protected sex: “One of our readers, a teenage girl, once consulted us about abortion after accidentally becoming pregnant. When we asked her why she hadn’t taken any precautions, she asked back, ‘Isn’t abortion a kind of contraceptive?’”  

“One common misunderstanding towards sex education among parents and schools is to think of it as knowledge merely about how to make love,” Zhao Yaohua told NewsChina.“The purpose of sex education is not only to impart knowledge, but more importantly it teaches people the meaning of responsibility, safety, independence and mutual respect in sex and relationships.”  

Zhang stressed that children and teenagers have the right to acquire knowledge of sex.“They are deprived of this right by their educators. Teachers and parents tend to regard them as passive recipients. But in fact teenagers have the ability to judge and choose on their own.”  

“‘Let every teenager gain a comprehensive knowledge and make choices cautiously, instead of having accidents out of ignorance – that is the principle of sex education,” Zhang added.