My 24-year old flat mate started dating for the first time last year. With no idea of what to do, she surprised her boyfriend with a somewhat unconventional technique, prodding his penis when in fact intending to give him a hand job. After cackling a bit, I asked her if she had ever watched porn. She hadn’t, and she had never discussed sex with friends. Her ideas about sex came mainly from films (which are PG-13) and fuzzy memories from biology class.
Last month, a series of textbooks ‘Cherish Life’ aimed at primary school and secondary school students led to heated debate about the state of China’s sex education. Primarily adopted by 18 primary schools in Beijing mainly attended by the children of migrant workers, it has been in print since 2010. But after a mother from Hangzhou posted pictures from the books on Weibo, (China’s hybrid of Facebook and Twitter) a ruckus ensued.
‘Foreigners have sex when they’re 13, so of course they need to have sex education in primary school. While I’m all for educating them (our children) to protect themselves, is there a need to be so open?’ says Li Shu, on Zhihu (China’s Quora). This is by no means the first time that sex education has caused an uproar. A sex education training class attended by over 400 teachers in Shandong province, led to protests outside the provincial centre’s Education Bureau, demanding a list of attendees be released and for them to be relieved of teacher status.
I encountered similar opinions myself when teaching English Literature to Chinese students wanting to study abroad. A Streetcar named Desire, a classic GCSE text was considered too ‘mature’ for the 14-year old I was teaching. While the mother in question was perfectly nice and clearly wanted her daughter to have a Western education, she hesitated when it came to a literary work with themes of sex and power.
It is natural to want your children to have your values – people generally consider themselves good people and want their children to be made in the same mould. Many of these worried parents married their first boyfriends. I know my parents did. When I was dating my first boyfriend my mother told me to wait for six months before having sex to make sure ‘he was the one’.
But this conservatism extends from private family life to the public arena. Some schools order boys and girls to keep a distance when walking together. And while studying at Tsinghua University last year, I found dorms for local students were separated by sex and no visitors were allowed after 11pm. Many couples would book a hotel for a night. But others resorted to other means. One student who declined to be named, said he had personally witnessed a couple touching each other underneath the table in a café near the dorms. Another mentioned seeing condoms on the football pitch.
The government seems reluctant to do more than issue guidelines and tacitly support publishers. People’s Daily, the government’s official mouthpiece took a positive slant on the affair, interviewing children’s education specialists and allowing them to speak about the merits of sex education. ‘Cherish Life’ is in line with 2008 Ministry of Education guidelines which state that primary school students should have a grasp of pregnancy, basic knowledge about growing up, and where they come from. But without standardisation, glaring holes in sex education will remain. While a businessman based in Beijing considers ‘sex education in primary school a bit early’ he also says only around a quarter of the women with whom he has had sex actively ask him to use a condom.
Many sexually active friends of mine, do not tell their parents anything about their relationships. Over one and a half years of life in Beijing, I have met people who are more sexually open than many of my Western friends. But I have also met people who live in Sanlitun, Beijing’s nightlife centre, who have never stepped over the threshold of a club or dated. Currently both government and China’s young people seem to be avoiding a facedown with protective parents. Until they do, the next generation will be learning about sex from porn and trial-an-error.