China’s veil over sex education – or not?

By Otilia Meden

It may not be a surprise that China’s standardised school curriculum leaves little room for sexual education. Subsequently, the lack of sexual awareness is evident in every corner of Chinese society. As often is the case, women and sexual minorities experience disproportional hardship. According to a Chinese sex educational book from 2004, a woman who ‘sacrifices her body’ with premarital sex will ‘degenerate’ towards immorality and “if she doesn’t quickly get married, she will turn from an innocent person to an impulsive one who easily yields to lustful boys.” Today, the lingering legacy of this perception prevails in Chinese society, and female sexuality is often reduced to the belonging of a man. Furthermore, many Chinese parents have expressed concern for their children being taught about LGBTQ+ rights because they may get the ‘wrong ideas’. In this context, the ‘wrong ideas’ refer to one’s sexuality and/or gender deviating from the heteronormative stereotypes of sex, gender, and sexuality. Delving further into the figures reveals the pervasive sexual illiteracy in China. Only 10 percent of nearly 20,000 university students from over 130 universities surveyed had received any sexuality education in primary school. Over 50 percent of the 13 million annual abortions in China are performed on women under the age of 25 years. Though the abortion policies are strict, abortion is normalised to an extent that advertisements are found inside university campuses in China. To combat these numbers, a healthy dose of sexual education might help, as UNESCO’s report indicates. Following on, in June 2021, the CCP changed school’s obligatory health education to include sexuality education. This is an important step towards a more equal and less rigid future regarding sex in China. Yet, the deep-rooted conservative culture makes the road a bumpy ride. Like most parents around the world, Chinese parents are uncomfortable with having ‘the sex conversation’ with their children. Therefore, outsourcing the conversation to a classroom with peer students and a teacher seems ideal. But a paradox arises. Many parents believe that schooltime is to be confined to ‘school’ rather than ‘the birds and the bees’, and in practice, many schoolteachers agree. So, while the new policies implicate progress, traditional values hinder the implementation on the ground. Due to these factors, the puzzle of how to educate Chinese children on sexuality remains unsolved. 

Ms. Chen Jing is the founder of a sexual education company in Shanghai that aims to increase sexual literacy in the Chinese public. While relying on international guidelines, Chen has had to make changes to the content to make sure that Chinese parents approve. For instance, in Chen’s program, only high schoolers are taught about using condoms, whereas such a topic is taught in primary schools in some Western countries. However, like Chen emphasises, “it’s not about which place is more progressive or backward”. Ultimately, “it’s about different social beliefs and traditional values on sex…” In other words, to make substantial progress, the cultural differences must be borne in mind. Just as outside Chinese borders, the dos and don’ts are inherently rooted in the culture, and change does not come easy. According to Confucianism, one of the most influential ancient philosophies in China, sexuality is taboo and discussion about sex is strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, sexuality is a crucial aspect of the human experience – and fundamental for our procreation. In such context, it seems ambiguous to dismiss it completely from the public sphere. UNESCO’s report stresses that sexuality education lays the foundation for the healthy growth and development of children and adolescents. Moreover, the largest adolescent population in the world lives in China, and therefore, comprehensive sexuality education in China can be an example for other countries. In 2019, a survey with nine basic questions about sexual health and contraception was done among Chinese university students. Fewer than one-third were able to answer six or more questions correctly, and almost 10 percent answered every question incorrectly. While the data portrays the Chinese adolescents’  sexual illiteracy, the conservative beliefs are not as deep-seated in them, and, as Chen’s work reveals, the majority wants to expand their sexual horizons.

As elsewhere in the world, sexuality continues to be a sensitive topic in China, but the future of sex education holds great promises. Ms. Guo Yueping, a now 24-year-old university student and member of the China Youth Network, tells that “the sexuality education that I received in middle school was limited to some basic knowledge about reproductive system covered in biology class and a brief girls-only class-meeting about menstruation.” She also shares that “two students who experienced unintended pregnancy were expelled from school.” Since Guo Yueping and her peers were in middle school, the veil over sex education has partially been lifted. Comprehensive sexuality education however moves beyond the traditional scope of contraception and sexual transmitted diseases. Gender equality, non-violent sexual behaviour, and consent are essential aspects of sexual awareness, and an increased focus on such topics can echo into those corners in society where sexual illiteracy is apparent. Thus, better sexuality education can become a fundamental stepping stone to improve gender equality in China (for more information, see: Feminism with Chinese Characteristics). However, as often the case, the CCP faces a junction caused by poor policies of the past. On the one side, to overcome the age and gender gap in the population, there is an urgent need for women to stay home and give birth, concisely put. On the other side, such incentives are inherently conservative and slow down the process of implementing comprehensive sexuality education in Chinese schools. While this is an evident fact in the CCP’s wide-spread propaganda, the resilience of the Chinese young people prospers. Reconciliation of traditional values on sex and comprehensive sexuality education is hopefully lurking just beneath surface.   

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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