Let's Talk About Sex Ed! ...Or Lack Thereof
Written by: Harvinder Kaur
Edited by: Ria Chia
Design & Illustrations by: Sara Dharmik
Time for Sex Ed Class!
Quiet laughter used to break out as students received the consent form for the upcoming Sex Education class or “Health Education Class” to be passed to guardians. “All boys please proceed to AV (audio visual) room and girls proceed to the music room”, this was how my Sex Education classes used to start. Across my primary and secondary education, lessons in Sex Ed used to cover talks about periods (which felt more like watching a period commercial without the over-enthusiastic cheerfulness), the breakneck progression to having sex after petting between partners, and photos of Sexual Transmitted Diseases (STD) to intimidate students away from sex..
There was a lot of self-learning I had to do for Sex Education from understanding that not everyone gets their period monthly, you do not dive into the sex after petting (thank you trashy novels), and that there were loads of content that my Sex Education class missed out on. Content that was important in shaping a teenager into someone aware and comfortable with themselves and others as well. Topics such as Sexuality, Sexual Orientation, Consent, Gender Norms/Roles, and Navigating through relationships were the torn-out missing pages from our Sex Ed Curriculum.
Why is said content missing though?
Our culture and location play a huge role in that. Within Asia itself, such topics are still considered taboo, and not discussed in the open, and certainly not with the youth. Within the conservative environments, parents are reluctant to talk about Sex Education as they are worried if the youth are exposed to it they might be more likely to experiment with it. However, this is not true as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research in 2016 revealed that when taught with a Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), a delay in sexual initiation is seen along with a decrease in the number and frequency of sexual intercourse and partners respectively. An increase in the use of condoms and contraception is also seen from this study.
Within Singapore, our Sexual Education Curriculum still focuses on abstinence being the best bet against STDs and Teenage Pregnancies. Outcomes of teenage pregnancies in Singapore start with overall stigmatisation and lead to either keeping the baby, getting an abortion or giving up the baby for adoption. Data from 2017 to 2019 showed a slow decrease in the number of teenage pregnancies, from 310 in 2017, to 289 in 2018, and 280 in 2019. The rate of teenage pregnancy has been decreasing over the years, likely due to teenagers taking their protection seriously. Thanks to Sex Ed lessons, while abstinence is emphasised, topics such as protection are still covered as per curriculum. However, teens who do fall pregnant still require assistance as they are not mentally or emotionally equipped to be parents yet. Open discussions without the shame and taboo associated with teenage pregnancy are a step forward in the long run. Hence, is emphasising the concept of abstinence still the answer, when there are other methods of protection that can be taught to reduce the likeliness of a teenager giving birth or having to decide to abort the baby? What do parents and students themselves want from Sex Ed lessons?
Over 500 parents were surveyed by AWARE in 2020, on what topics should be covered in Sex Ed curriculums. Based on the survey, the most popular answer was Sexual Consent and Sexual Self-protection. Premarital abstinence was ranked last by 78% of the respondents. In 2019, an interview done by TODAY asked students of their views of topics that should be covered in Sex Ed curriculums. Students stated that they wanted to be taught how to practice safe sex, consent, dealing with STDs, and LGBT relationships and identities. These surveys highlight that both the target audience (youth) and their guardians (parents) want more relevant information to be included in the curriculum to prepare the youth for an inevitable occurrence of life. So why are our youth not armed with more information to make informed decisions about their sexual health?
Sexual health is more than periods, pregnancy, and sex. It is a subject covering topics such as Sexuality, Boundaries, Respect and Communication between partners, Self Image and Esteem. Trying to explain this to our youth might seem a complex undertaking but they are essential. When given the right tools, we empower our youth to take charge of their decisions and encourage them to be responsible and make informed choices. Being empowered improves the holistic development of our youth and it seeps into other aspects of their present and future life such as their Education, Careers, and Relationships.
So why is the answer to anything sex-related still “ABSTINENCE”?
This is largely due to our largely conservative environment that starts sweating at taboo topics. A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies between 2019 & 2020, showed that Singapore has adapted to our western counterparts since 2002. However, on Sexual and Moral topics Singaporeans maintain their conservative stance. An example, 1300 out of 2000 participants stated that casual sex is never or seldom justified and over 1000 participants said the same about homosexuality. The cohort was made up of citizens and residents who were over the age of 21. This gives us an idea of our conservative environment.
Think hard on Sex Ed classes we have sat through. The similar narrative of a teenage couple that had sex where the girl becomes pregnant and has her life derailed. This is an intimidation tactic. But does it really work? Teenagers are curious and the more ambiguity there is around sex, the more intrigued they are. Our youth along with attempting to understand quadratic equations, are experiencing peer pressures, puberty and rampaging hormones (among other things), so adding suspense to the bucket around sex is not really helpful.
What can be done to address the limitations of the current Sexual Education Curriculum?
International bodies such as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) East Asia & Pacific and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have promoted the value, need, and importance of CSE to be taught. CSE has been thought to be the gold standard as it is taught over a period and has age-relevant information that the target youth will relate to. It provides scientifically accurate information on anatomy, reproductive health, contraception, childbirth & STDs. CSE helps address topics the youth may face from family to exploring the opposite/same sex, gender roles, gender equality, and even sexual abuse. Despite what our conservative population may believe, studies by UNESCO have shown exposing the youth to these topics does not lead to earlier sexual activity. It has shown a decrease in riskier behaviours, a positive outcome of increased condom use, and a decrease in unplanned pregnancies.
A possible reason could be because the anonymity of the topic is removed through these comprehensive discussions, showcasing to the youth the consequences of their actions. Furthermore, if they still wish to engage in such behaviours, the youth is equipped on how to approach the situation and how to protect themself and their partner. Locally, a forum on The Straits Times asked for Schools to review their Sex Ed classes as there has been a rise in cases of sexual violence on campuses. The writer stated her firm belief that the lack of a comprehensive approach to sexual education played a contributory role in the rise of cases. MOE’s reply to the writer was that they are relevant with current trends among youth and essentially they should concur with parents on the right values to impart to the young. Is the decrease in riskier behaviour, decrease in unplanned pregnancies, and increased condom use, not the right values we wish our youth to have?
Sexual Education should include other topics such as body neutrality, consent, and LGBTQ+ identities and relationships. These topics are less talked about and affect the holistic development of our youth now and later on in their lives.
More importantly, youths should first learn how to love themselves and their body, before attempting to explore further with their partners. This includes understanding cries of help our bodies give through signs such as hair fall, weight fluctuations and our mood fluctuations. Body Image issues are largely relevant within our youth who wish to fit in better with their classmates or even with the general population they see around them. Learning to love their body includes knowing that our youth do not have to change their body to fit in with their classmates or society. Body Dysmorphia, can be classified under Body Image Issues and is something that starts from an adolescent age group (Age 16 - 18) and is prevalent in both males and females. It is a relevant topic to address during Sex Ed, as the physical symptoms are not visible and can be prevalent within the age group of 12 onwards, thus it is a relevant subject to the youth who have eating disorders stemming from Body Dysmorphia.
Another topic that should be emphasised is consent. We have seen articles showcasing tertiary institutes including compulsory courses on sexual consent, boundaries, and respect to combat against the rise of sexual misconduct seen at tertiary levels. However what we should take note of is that things such as respect, boundaries, and consent is not only applicable in sexual settings when you are an adult, but it is relevant across all settings in your life and thus these should be taught at an earlier age. The same thought process was reflected by parents during the survey mentioned above done by AWARE in 2020, as sexual consent and sexual self-protection was the top-ranked topics parents felt were important to cover in Sex Ed. It was further explained that effective consent education should take into consideration circumstances; e.g. peer pressure, hormonal changes, and gender norms. On the same page, when we effectively teach our youth the concept of consent and the fact that consent can be revoked at any time they feel uncomfortable, it empowers them and allows them to have boundaries in place to put themselves first in any situation.
Teaching sexual consent itself is a hot topic, as parents assume it will be taught through Sex Ed classes, and in schools, consent is taught specifically to address peer pressure of smoking, drugs, and sex. They do not cover that consent is also for your relationship with your family. This leads to students getting added definitions through misrepresented depictions in movies and/or in TV series. Learning consent should start from home where your views and opinions are heard and respected regardless of your age. Children who are taught basic consent from home would have an easier time understanding Sexual Consent when relevant, as it carries the same lesson, “No means No.”. The added lesson to sexual consent is that you can take away that “Yes” at any time and your partner should respect your decision. If they do not, then you sit down and communicate your boundaries with them. If they continue to disrespect you…. *Snip* *Snip*.
Another topic that has been highlighted by the youth in 2019, was LGBTQ+ Identities and relationships. Recent local news has shown us what a huge role our education system places in the lives of our youth. LGBTQ+ population has been asking the government for their rights through the repealing of laws that were put in place during colonised times, the large portion of resistance comes again from the conservative portion of the country’s population. This push back is occurring not just locally but across our neighbouring countries. Despite this, we recently saw after the peaceful protest, a group of 300 local educators, counsellors, and social workers signed a petition asking the MOE to implement a clear policy to support transgender students. This stand by educators themselves is monumental as they understand that education plays a huge role in shaping the youth. During their pre-teen and teenage years is the time when the youth is understanding themselves better, thus having a positive and neutral stance on LGBTQ+ identities and relationships during Sex Ed lessons from the schools, will allow students having gender identity issues to open up to their educators and come into a better understanding of themselves.
Local surveys referenced above have voiced out topics that the youth themselves and their parents want to be taught during Sex Ed classes. Regional bodies have also highlighted methods that can be incorporated to teach a holistic array of topics under Sex Ed, and along with the reasons as to why they are important to be taught. Teaching youths to take charge of their sexuality is not about encouraging them to have sex (shocking, I know!). Rather, it is more of teaching youths that before you attempt “the practical”, make sure you have read and understood the background, risks involved, and safety information. The rest is up to them on whether to move onward with “the practical”. Comprehensive Sexual Education is a really good set of training wheels we all needed/need. I hope the time of teenagers having to piece together missing information on Sex Ed is behind us and in the future or near future, our Sex Ed Curriculum is revamped to cover a comprehensive perspective on Sexual Education and Health to empower our youth to make informed decisions while being fully aware of the implications and consequences.