CNA special assignment: sex education, part 1
"No man has ever died from not having
sex," the young woman told an assembly of a few hundred schoolboys. I thought
that was one of the more telling scenes from Channel News Asia's program on sex
education in Singapore, aired on 27 August 1999.
It was a small milestone for Singapore television, that they got brave enough to do a half-hour documentary on this subject, and personally, I thought the resulting program was quite creditable. It was even a pleasant surprise to me that they devoted about 5 minutes to homosexuality. That made it a first of sorts for a locally produced program.
There are two parts to this essay. Part I contains my general thoughts about some issues raised by the program. I won't detail everything that the program covered -- it'd be too tedious. Part II contains more specific and more critical commentary on the homosexuality segment.
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That there is a need for better sex education in Singapore is undeniable. Actually, I'm sure a lot of people deny it nonetheless. There's a feeling that "I did all right without anyone ever giving me sex education and I'm a father of four, so why raise the issue now?" Others feel that sex education merely leads to promiscuity. As if sex and promiscuity are somehow bad and contagious.
In truth, Singaporeans are extremely stuffed up about sex. And very ignorant too.
Some kids get information from the internet. The only girl interviewed by Channel News Asia (all the other students interviewed were boys) said,
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When and where
The program interviewed a few teachers. With one exception -- and he was the only male educator interviewed -- the rest gave the impression of being reluctant to deal with the subject, and if at all they had to, they took a very conservative stance. One department head made it clear that the subject was low priority, and meant only for the 16-17 year-olds of Secondary 4 and 5:
Channel News Asia's interviewer asked her whether she would consider sex education for the younger boys.
On the other hand, professional counsellors felt that younger kids also needed sex education.
John Vasavan, the President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, concurred. He spoke about children in Primary 6, who would be about 12 years old.
The Ministry of Education has included two chapters on sex education in the science and moral education syllabi. But what do the teachers do with them? Do they teach them as sex education or something else?
This suggests that teachers avoid talking about sex even when they have to do the sex education portion. How pathetic can you get?
To justify avoidance of this subject, teachers fall back on the excuse that the subject is properly for the family, and that the aim of schooling is primarily academic. You might have noted that Dorothy Tan made these two points in the quote above. Both are highly debatable.
I would go further than Lim Su Min. I contest that we should even kowtow to the axiom that sex education ought to be in the home. And I strongly disagree that schooling must be primarily academic. For a kid, the school is the second biggest part of his life. While the family is the biggest, there are no external standards set for quality in family life. Society cannot ensure that the kids get quality upbringing from their families. After all, any tom, dick and mary can become fathers and mothers. The school is the main place where quality standards can be made to apply, where quality information can be made available to children. It is a dereliction of societal responsibility to say that schooling scope should be narrowly confined to the academic. For the sake of many children, school must be the place to make up for the deficiencies of home. Isn't that why many countries' schools have programs for nutrition; why vaccination is often delivered through schools?
Sex is a big (and very engrossing) part of teenagers' lives. To deny any overlap between this big part and the other big part of their lives -- school -- flies against common sense and the best interests of our children.
Next, to use euphemisms like "family life education" is a little laughable. It simply reinforces the shadowiness of sex. By keeping sex unspeakable, by insisting that the family is the appropriate place -- implying that the school is too public a place to discuss something as intimate (read: embarrassing) as sex -- is to continue to keep the issue illicit and thus a breeding ground for ignorance.
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It struck me, watching the program that teachers and students had vastly opposite ideas of the needed approach to the subject. The teachers' idea of sex education was didactic and instructive: "This is right! That is wrong!" The subtext was: sex is bad. If you want to be good, don't do it.
The teenagers had different ideas. For them, the approach ought to be experiential and discussive. While there are biological facts to be familiarised with, the subject revolves around issues to be debated and values challenged. The starting premise should be: There Isn't Any One Right Answer. Listen to the boys speak:
The St Joseph's boys' responses may be the positive outcome of their Deputy Principal's approach:
You might also have noticed that some of the St Joseph's boys who were interviewed were 14 year-olds. That would be Secondary 2. Compare this to St Gabriel's, where Dorothy Tan would not consider sex education until they were 16 or 17. She said, as I quoted earlier, "it might awaken something that is really not necessary… if you push this to them, actually it may not be a good thing ."
This is what I mean by some adults taking the view that just the mere mention of sex will lead to young people jumping up and doing it. They ignore the fact that sex is visible everywhere in modern media, and that just because teachers are tight-lipped and parents frigid about it doesn't mean the kids haven't had a thought about it yet.
So what exactly did St Gabriel's do for their 16 year-olds (after having done nothing for the 14 year-olds)? They invited a speaker from the Family Life Society. I am told this is a very Catholic group, and extremely homophobic too, in other words, stuffed up about sex. Giving a talk about sex. The title of their talk was "The Celebration of Life", as you'd notice, more euphemism.
The Channel New Asia program included a few shots of the speaker, a young woman, speaking to a few hundred boys in the school auditorium. That's when she said, "No man has ever died from not having sex," and somehow I knew what the overall thrust of the talk was.
In another snippet of the event, she said to the boys, "We're not here to talk about safe sex. There's no such thing as safe sex."
Heaven help us!
Channel News Asia interviewed the co-ordinator of the Family Life Society's talks.
The big problem with the "how" is that these missionaries of chastity cannot but be didactic. Yet, the reality of the present day is that no teenager is going to accept such an approach any more in sex or in any subject. And a good thing too, for the sake of Singapore's future. It is amazing to me that the missionaries can't see how out of touch with reality they are. Not just on sex, but on their prescriptive approach. People nowadays want the freedom to think for themselves, not to be told what is Right or Wrong. I don't even know whether they realise they were made to look silly, when their young woman speaker asked the boys what was intended as a rhetorical question, only to get laughter:
Channel News Asia tried their hand at adversarial journalism. They asked Dorothy Tan of St Gabriel's, the Department Head who brought in the Family Life Society talk, if one session like that was not too little, too late.
With that, another thought flashed through my mind about the 'how'. How can one do sex education by giving a public talk to a few hundred boys at a time? It can only be a monologue, a top-down edict, like God giving Moses the Ten Commandments.
More so than academic subjects, sex education must be about young people learning to think for themselves, exploring options when confronted with issues personal and social. This demands an iterative process of sustained contact and dialogue between the young person and adults who are understanding and approachable, spread over years as the teenager passes through the many phases of adolescence.
A setting like a mass assembly in a school auditorium is completely at variance from the needed environment.
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I don't know if it was coincidence, but it struck me watching the program, that too many teachers trying to do sex education for boys, were female. I say 'trying' because, from what the program showed, they weren't succeeding.
I think we have to recognise that men and women approach the issue of sex quite differently. I recall reading a succinct statement encapsulating that difference: "For men, sex sometimes leads to love; for women, love sometimes leads to sex."
Especially for boys whose hormones are raging, curious about this new horizon, we must always bear in mind what Brother Michael alluded to. That sex is fun. It is seen as a past-time. Of course it is. Most of them masturbate every day, if not a few times a day. Talking and joking about girls enhances camaraderie with your classmates. Getting a girlfriend increases status. Petting is a thrill not to be missed. Actually getting laid is better than winning the prize for the 100-metre dash. It's a question of fun and conquest. Crushes are the emotional roller-coasters: exhilarating, absorbing, distracting, crushing. Wonderful and hopeless at the same time. But sex is always fun.
Many women find it hard to appreciate this angle. They can see it, they can know it rationally, but they cannot instinctively empathise with the boys on it. Listen to how this female teacher puts down the boys' attitude to the subject:
We can't go around denying that women, for biological and cultural reasons, often bring a different perspective to sex. To them, sex is a more serious business and more closely tied to love. So the schoolmarms, following their female instincts, preach abstinence, and waiting for the right person, waiting for the right moment (i.e. after marriage). They try to cordon off sex as untouchable. Such a message is so unrealistic for boys that it is no wonder that the message falls flat. Hence the very critical comments made by the teenage boys to Channel News Asia.
I think the sex education program would be a lot more successful if the male teachers handled the subject. They don't have to be science teachers, after all, the relevant biological facts aren't that difficult to bone up on. What is more important is that they should be the ones able to achieve rapport with the kids, able to talk comfortably one-on-one with them, able to treat the subject with candour, light-heartedness, freedom from dogma, and a touch of their own (cheeky) boyhood.
However, Singapore's education service has a severe shortage of male teachers. Most men do not find the idea of a teaching career as interesting or fulfilling. In fact, men often find the prospect of interacting with kids quite stressful (a symptom related to the worldwide tendency for fathers to be distant).
But there is one group of men that tend to be a lot more interested in teaching -- the gay men. And there is anecdotal evidence that generally speaking, the better male teachers tend to be the gay ones. If the education service wants to succeed in recruiting more male teachers (so far, they are trying, but not succeeding), they ought to target gay men .
The only problem is that government policy here is apoplectic about anything gay, starting with homosexuality as an issue in sex education. This was an area Channel News Asia thought they covered in the last five minutes of the program, but I think they failed the test. See Part 2
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