Not talking about sex: At whose expense?

by Gan Pei Ling / 2 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

SOME government officials have recently come up with “creative” ways to solve the problems of teenage pregnancy and baby dumping in Malaysia. To curb teenage pregnancies, the Education Ministry said it was encouraging students to submit written pledges that they would not engage in premarital sex. To solve the problem of baby dumping, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam announced that the state planned to set up a special school for pregnant teens.

Shahrizat

These suggestions may seem well-intentioned for some. But they are actually problematic. So what if students submit a written pledge? Youths who are curious about sex and want to experiment would do it before marriage anyway. And as Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil has pointed out, the girls who are placed in Malacca’s “special school” will likely be stigmatised, creating other problems for them.

Instead of offering piecemeal solutions, what we really need is to get to the root of the problem of teenage pregnancies. Plus, it’s unfair to expect the government alone to be responsible for the problem.

Empowering, instead of preventing

What really is the root of the problem? Is it really that teenagers are having sex outside of marriage and should be stopped? Or that teenagers who find themselves in such situations don’t know how to protect themselves because they haven’t been taught?

If anything, the “chastity” pledge demonstrates the Education Ministry’s attempt to impose a narrow moralistic view about sex on young people. Such attempts have failed in other countries, including in the US. And even if some of us believe that young people should not have sex before marriage, we should not withhold important information about safe sex and contraception from them. Doing so would amount to a gross disservice to our youth.

Indeed, we cannot compel anyone – youths or adults – to strictly adhere to moral codes, in their private lives, that have been set by others. And if we continue to tell youths they shouldn’t engage in premarital sex in the same way that they should say “no” to smoking or drugs, we are actually telling them that premarital sex is something that is as ruinous, and shameful to boot.

But will these prevention methods really work? From the rate of teenage pregnancies and baby dumping that has been reported of late, clearly a better strategy is needed.

(Pic by Morrhigan / sxc.hu)

Our youth need accurate information on contraception and birth control so that they can protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections – including HIV/AIDS – and unwanted pregnancies, before or during marriage. Wouldn’t providing youths with information, instead of moralistic prohibitions, be more empowering in helping young people make responsible decisions about their bodies and relationships?

For example, many continue to subscribe to myths such as girls or women can’t get pregnant during their period or if the guy pulls out before he ejaculates. Such falsehoods can only be dispelled if parents or teachers create safe spaces for discussion for young people, instead of treating sex as something that is immoral and shameful.

As it is, without responsible adults to discuss these issues with, many young people turn to pornography out of curiosity. But many do not know how to view pornography critically and lack the skills and maturity to negotiate sexual relationships.

Hence, it is actually irresponsible for parents or teachers to avoid talking about sex and sexuality simply because they are “uncomfortable” with the subject. If parents and teachers don’t provide a place where young people can go to, where do we expect our youths to find out about responsible relationships?

Conflicting messages

Young people are often confused by the conflicting messages about sex and sexuality from the media or society. For example, the teenage characters in Gossip Girl have sex. We tell them “that’s the West” and premarital sex is not compatible with “Asian values”. But stories of couples having sex before marriage are shown in Korean, Japanese and Hong Kong dramas, too.

Young people hear politicians declare that scantily dressed women arouse men’s sexual desire and cause men to sexually harass or rape women. Yet the government continues to allow the advertising industry to objectify women’s bodies in ads.

Young people in Malaysia see gay couples in healthy, loving relationships in The L Word and Brothers and Sisters, yet sodomy is a crime, and pengkid are outlawed, and the media either ignore or demonise people of different sexualities.

A 2008 fatwa ruled that tomboys, or pengkid, were forbidden in Islam

How are young people supposed to make sense of all these conflicting messages without guidance from their parents, teachers or other adults?

Parents

One of the reasons many parents and teachers feel “embarrassed” talking about such subjects is because even they themselves may not know much about sex and sexuality. But isn’t it high time our parents and teachers, especially those teaching subjects related to sex, buck up and adopt a more open attitude towards sex and sexuality so that they can be responsible adults?

“In countries like the Netherlands, where many families regard it as an important responsibility to talk openly with children about sex and sexuality, this contributes to greater cultural openness about sex and sexuality and improved sexual health among young people,” according to HIV/AIDS charity Avert.

The organisation also says there is evidence that positive parent-child communication about sexual matters can lead to greater condom use among young men and a lower rate of teenage conception among young women. Avert further suggests that parents can view sex education as an ongoing conversation about values, attitudes and issues with their children.

Embarrassment or discomfort to talk about sex and sexuality is a lame excuse, especially if that may cause your child or student to get infected, or become a teenage parent.

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