Last month, China’s family planning association announced it would “intervene” to reduce abortions among unmarried women and teenagers. The news sparked a social media uproar, as activists worried the move could further erode women’s reproductive rights. The association quickly clarified its stance, saying it merely wanted to help teenagers avoid the health risks and social challenges associated with unwanted pregnancy.
The clarification may have been a relief to some, but there are real reasons why the China Family Planning Association would see reducing abortions as a priority. Roughly 9.5 million abortions are performed every year in China. According to Wu Shangchun, a researcher at a think tank affiliated with the country’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, China’s abortion ratio is as much as two to three times higher than that of the U.S. The procedure is especially common among young women, with unmarried women under the age of 24 accounting for 40% of all abortions.
These statistics can be explained by a multitude of factors, but one of the most important reasons is the dismal state of China’s sex education programs. Even China’s “Generation Z,” who grew up with easy access to the internet and in an atmosphere of relative sexual tolerance, often have trouble finding reliable information on the topic. In a 2017 survey of adolescent sexual and reproductive health knowledge, Chinese high school students only answered every second question correctly.
Xiao Han, a student at an international school in Shanghai, said in an interview that she never received any formal sexuality education from her school. “It may have been mentioned in the ‘Life and Health’ textbook, but it was just sent to everyone without instruction,” she said.
Another high school student I spoke to, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons, told me he first began to question his sexuality in elementary school, when his best friends suddenly drew the line between boys and girls and began teasing him for being too girly. He didn’t understand why being a male had to mean being as masculine as his friends wanted.
Growing up in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, his first exposure to school-based sex education wouldn’t come for another three years. In his second year of middle school, his biology teacher quickly went over the chapter of the textbook related to the reproductive system. “It was a summer afternoon, and the weather was hot,” he recalled. “Everyone had read the textbook beforehand and was looking forward to what the teacher would say. But it turned out to be super boring: The teacher just talked in generalities and then said this chapter wouldn’t show up on the test. That was the whole class.”
Chen Rude, a primary school teacher in the central city of Changsha, told me that his school’s sex education program consists of a lecture in which teachers from the mental health department separate male and female students and teach them some basic information about periods and AIDS prevention, but nothing else.
Unsurprisingly, most of my interviewees got their sex knowledge outside of class, from the internet and social media. On streaming site Bilibili, vloggers like Ta Ta La, Mr. Six Stories, and Alex Is a Girl have built large audiences among young Chinese with frank discussions of sex and sexuality.
While such sources can be useful, they’re no replacement for formal, school-based sex education. To address this gap, China last year began mandating “age-appropriate sex education for minors” at all school levels, including kindergarten. As is common in official documents related to sex ed, the revision was framed in part as a way to increase students’ “awareness and ability to protect themselves against sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”
In the meantime, researchers and experts continue to advocate for the adoption of what is known as Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in China. Liu Wenli, a professor at Beijing Normal University, spent 10 years developing a CSE textbook based on UNESCO guidelines for kindergarteners and primary school students. CSE, which not only teaches students about sex, but also about relationships, gender, puberty, consent, and sexual and reproductive health, has been found effective in helping learners acquire better skills to deal with relationships and sexuality.
But there are signs that China isn’t quite ready to give CSE a try. Five years ago, a textbook edited by Liu’s team was pulled from circulation following criticisms from parents that its illustrations of naked bodies were inappropriate.
“Sex Education being written into law is an exciting development, but it’s just the first step in a long journey,” Liu said in an interview with the China Business Herald last year. “What content should be taught in sex education? Do we have enough qualified teachers to teach the class? What kind of teaching methods are useful? These questions need to be addressed, and they are very urgent.”
This view was echoed by Chen, the primary school teacher, who worries that instructors haven’t been provided with good enough resources to truly teach students about sex. He pointed to a “Life and Health” textbook used in his province, which he says describes genders in a very stereotypical way by depicting girls as inherently “gentle” and “quiet.”
There are number of international examples China can draw from in designing a more comprehensive sex ed curriculum. In Denmark, sex ed reform benefited from the collaboration of the government, schools, the publishing industry, and non-governmental organizations like Sex & Samfund. The NGO has helped run “Sex Weeks” for 13 years, during which teachers guide students to discuss the challenges they face in real life, ranging from having the “sex talk” with parents to masturbation and consent. In this approach, students are seen as competent actors in their own lives, and their active participation is crucial to the program’s success.
The high school student from Xinjiang told me that, after a disappointing sex ed class, he finally found some of the information he was looking in an unlikely place: a course on “mental health education.” During class time, the teacher guided students through the use of different methods of contraception and taught them how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
The class gave him more confidence, he said, but he still feels like his knowledge is limited — especially since topics like homosexuality were never addressed. He dreams of attending a high school like the one in the Netflix hit show “Sex Education,” where high school students navigate sex and self-growth in a far more open environment.
China’s sex education reforms could take years or even decades to bear fruit. But the longer it drags on, the longer Chinese teens will find themselves reliant on TV, influencers, and viral social media posts to learn about sex.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: FangYifei/Moment/VCG)