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.


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 /

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?


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.

Let’s talk about sex, please

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

(Chalkboard image by ilco /

(Chalkboard image by ilco /

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.