As a sexuality education teacher, my job is to go into schools and educate children and teenagers about the realities of sex and the ways they can protect themselves from harm. It’s a job very close to my heart, as when I was a child, I was sexually assaulted.
As a 6-year-old, I enjoyed hanging around the older boys in our village in Zhejiang, a province in eastern China. One time, a couple of 11- or 12-year-olds called me and a girl my age into an abandoned courtyard. One of them held out some tasty-looking corn and said: “Do you want this? If you do, you have to do as I say.” He had the girl strip naked and lie on the grass, and then he made me take off my clothes and lie on top of her. The most difficult thing to forget were her cries of pain.
As I grew older, I felt so guilty and uneasy about the incident that I avoided the girl from my village. If only we local kids had received proper sex education in the first place, this sort of thing may never have happened. Now, nearly 20 years later, more and more people in China are coming to see the importance of talking about sex with their children. However, the current situation is still worrisome.
My business partner shared an experience she had last year when she was at an elementary school teaching third- and fourth-graders. After explaining sexual harassment to them, she asked her students what they should do if they are molested. One student raised his hand, stood up, and said with a straight face, “Kill yourself.” My partner asked if he had any other answers, to which he said, “Marry your rapist.” More shockingly, almost half the students in the class agreed that suicide was an option, and many agreed that marriage was another. Yet another student interrupted to add that if the sex offender didn’t want to marry the victim, then that would make the victim unmarriageable.
The clear shortcomings of children’s sex education in China are cause for concern, and this is one of the reasons I decided to teach the subject in the first place. Three years of volunteering at sex ed events during my college years gave me insight into the social issues caused by a lack of education about personal relationships, so I decided to shape my career around this cause. After gaining all the necessary qualifications, in 2015 — the year I graduated from college — I founded my own official sex education organization for children.
But my work encountered setbacks right from the start. My grandparents opposed my decision. Believing it to be dishonest — even shameful — work, they implored me to find a better job. Whenever I introduce my work in sex education to other people, they invariably look at me as if I’ve said a curse word. However, the real challenges continue to stem from the misconceptions that parents and society as a whole have about sex ed.
At first, when we visited about 10 primary schools to offer sex ed services, they were all unwilling to have us there. Some wouldn’t even let us in once they heard we were there to talk about sex. On the rare occasions when we were able to meet a school administrator, most of them worried that sex education would lead children to explore sex too early, or that parents would protest if their schools offered such a curriculum.
Some parents simply opposed their children learning about sex at all, reasoning that they would naturally come to understand it as they grew up. Others went as far as taking their kids out of the class altogether. Once, we taught a community class to children while their parents sat in the back. Shortly after we started, one father gestured at his child, telling him to leave the room with him. We asked why he was heading off early. He said, “My kid’s a boy; he’ll never have to deal with this stuff.” But what if his child hurts another because he was never taught not to?
Another time, I was talking about genital hygiene when a student’s father came into the classroom. He saw a drawing of the male reproductive organs on my PowerPoint slide and furiously screamed, “What kind of trash are you teaching?” Then he dragged his child out of the room.
To counter the obstacles and ignorance that we faced, we poured our efforts into winning hearts and minds. Starting with the more open-minded schools and parents, we worked to help them understand the educational services we provided. After a series of successes, we earned the support of several government organizations, like the Communist Youth League and the All-China Women’s Federation. Their support eased us into working with more schools and communities.
We were also able to promote sex education through social networking sites, as well as offer online classes and consulting services to parents. Chinese society has called for better sex education in recent years, and more and more sex ed organizations are approaching us with a view to training their teaching staff.
However, there are still a lot of adults who often feel constrained by conservative thinking when they talk about sex. Young children, meanwhile, treat sex the same way as they treat any other subject. Because sex doesn’t seem awkward to them, their questions are sometimes rather bold: “Teacher, have you had sex before?” “Does it feel good?” “How long does sex normally last?”
To my surprise, a few of my students — some as young as 10 years old — have already been exposed to online pornography. However, at this age, children know next to nothing about sex, love, protective measures, or the responsibility that comes with being sexually active. If we do not give them accurate information about how to appropriately treat the subject of sex, they may end up violating other people or having unprotected sex.
Immediate action is necessary to bring better sex education to China, especially given the tragedies that occur due to inadequate sex ed in the country. To realize this goal, China’s more conservative adults need to stop tiptoeing around the issue and start speaking frankly about sex. If we don’t, we are — quite simply — failing the next generation.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A girl uses a crayon to color over parts of a picture of a woman's body during a sex education class in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, April 16, 2017. He Tingtong/Sixth Tone)