Let’s talk about sex, please

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 July 2010 © The Nut Graph

(Chalkboard image by ilco / sxc.hu)

(Chalkboard image by ilco / sxc.hu)

TO its credit, the government is trying to introduce sex education in schools. From mid-2009 till end of 2011, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Education Ministry are implementing a pilot project targeting 16- and 17-year-olds in five schools.

“The ministry hopes to use the outcome from the project to advocate for the inclusion of social and reproductive health education in primary and secondary schools,” Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil tells The Nut Graph. Indeed, with increased reports of baby dumping and teenage pregnancies, having sex education is clearly an imperative.

The pilot project is called I’m In Control, and Shahrizat explains that the module educates teenagers on how to identify and avoid high-risk situations, including assertive techniques to avoid premarital sex.

If the government is eventually successful in implementing sex education in schools, how should a comprehensive sex education look like? Additionally, what obstacles stand in the way of sex education?

Sexual beings

P.S. The Children‘s training and education director Nooreen Preusser says that everyone, regardless of their age, is a sexual being. “Even babies are curious about their bodies and play with their genitals; it’s a healthy curiosity,” she says in a phone interview with The Nut Graph.

Hence, she argues, sex and sexuality education should begin from pre-school, in an age-appropriate way.

Preusser (Courtesy of Nooreen Preusser)

“We could start by teaching children the correct names of their private body parts as we teach them the names of their other body parts,” she says, adding that that this signals there is no shame or mystery associated with private body parts.

Preusser says that in Germany, eight- and nine-year-olds are taught the basic facts about heterosexual sex and conception.

“The children are not shocked as it is done in an appropriate and matter-of-fact way,” she says, stressing that children also need to be taught to differentiate between a safe and unsafe touch.

Preusser adds that in countries like Finland and Netherlands, where sex education starts at pre-school, the rates of unplanned teenage pregnancies and teenagers infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are much lower.

Access to information

Malaysian youths are also not helped by their alarmingly low awareness about contraception, according to a survey released in 2009. Additionally, contraception is not offered by the public health sector to unmarried people, Low Wah Yun from Universiti Malaya‘s Faculty of Medicine points out in a 2009 research paper.

Youths only have access to contraceptive services by private and non-governmental organisations. However, low awareness on the availability of such services and social stigma prevent most youth from accessing these services.

(Pic by zts / Dreamstime)

“Teenagers have the right to accurate sexual and reproductive health information so that they can make responsible and informed sexual choices,” says Wong Li Leng from the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM).

She says her association promotes abstinence, but “we have to accept the reality that some teenagers are engaging in premarital sex, and they need to have information to protect themselves and their partners from HIV/AIDS, STIs, unplanned pregnancies, etc.”

Teaching equality

Activist and writer Marina Mahathir says gender is a key component that should be included in sex education.

“We have to educate teenagers about negative gender stereotypes; for example, how boys are expected to be macho all the time and girls are expected to be submissive in relationships under social norms,” the 3R executive producer says. The TV programme 3R tackles issues on sexuality and women’s rights.

Wong agrees with Marina: “[W]ithout knowing the assumptions made to boys and girls, and recognising how gender stereotyping affects their choices and relationships in their lives, teenagers will not be able to apply the skills [in negotiating sexual relationships] in their daily lives.”

Wong adds that in FRHAM’s module, they also educate adolescents on their rights and values, and what to do when their rights are violated. “[F]or example, if they are sexually harassed or abused, we educate them on why it happens, what to do, and where to go.”

Wong (Pic courtesy of Cheah Shu Yi)

“We [also] explore issues on peer pressure, and the techniques of saying ‘no’,” Wong tells The Nut Graph.

Marina adds that topics such as dating, commitment in a relationship, as well as the existence of different sexualities should also be discussed in sex education.

In Singapore, sex education starts from upper primary till pre-university level. However, homosexuality is only covered in one lesson in lower secondary school, and students are taught that homosexual acts are illegal. People with other sexualities such as transgender, asexual and intersex are not mentioned in the curriculum at all.

“We can’t pretend that people with different sexualities don’t exist. It only serves to elevate discrimination against them. We need to create more safe spaces for people to talk about these issues,” says Marina.

Wong says FRHAM does provide information on other sexualities in their module.

Political will

If Malaysian youth are to be empowered to make informed and responsible choices on their sexual and reproductive health behaviour, then having comprehensive sex education would help. However, the government’s attempt to introduce sex education, also known as social and reproductive health education or sexuality education, in schools is not new.

In 2005, the Education Ministry announced it planned to introduce sex education to curb sexual crimes, internet pornography, and premarital sex. The government also considered including sex education in the National Service programme in 2008. There have not been any updates on either initiative.

Shahrizat (File pic)

Shahrizat says many parents worry because they misconceive sex education as teaching young people how to have sex, while teachers say they are not prepared to take on the subject.

“[P]arents worry [this] will lead to early sexual experimentation and promiscuity.

“However, findings of studies carried out by countries that have implemented sex education such as Sweden, Norway and Netherlands have shown that sex education for young people leads to a delay in sexual initiation, promotes abstinence, and prevents STIs and unwanted pregnancies,” Shahrizat says.

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