Pupils in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, go through booklets on AIDS prevention and sex education compiled by APEPCY (YU NAN)
What comes to your mind immediately when we talk about sex? In a sex education class for primary school students' parents in Dujiangyan, southwest China's Sichuan Province, teacher Du Li asks this question and triggers an animated discussion on puberty and sex education.
"My son asked, 'Why is it that daddy and I can stand up to pee, but you have to squat?'" an embarrassed mother narrates her unintentionally funny story as an example of how she explained sex to her son. "My husband didn't know how to reply, mumbling, 'That's the way the government has ordered it.'"
Explaining body and sex
How does one answer questions frequently asked by children such as "Where do I come from?" Many parents avoid giving a direct answer due to conservative Chinese attitudes toward sex.
It is widely acknowledged that sex education is inadequate in Chinese schools. This has some serious effects on youngsters, resulting in teenage pregnancy, premarital abortion, sexual harassment and AIDS. The situation calls for greater awareness, particularly in parents, of the importance of adequate sex education.
"If we teach them about their bodies and sex properly, they will learn how to protect themselves from harm," said Zeng Yan, father of a 6-year-old.
Zhang Yinjun has been making efforts to promote scientific sex education.
"Apart from biological knowledge, the sex education [we give] includes psychological and moral knowledge and sexual responsibility. That's an important part we are trying to teach young people," said Zhang, co-founder of the AIDS Prevention Education Project for Chinese Youth (APEPCY).
APEPCY, founded in 2006, provides sex education and AIDS prevention curriculums with an age-appropriate approach by working with local schools across the country. A successful example is Du's lectures for parents at the Ding Xin Xin Jian Primary School in Dujiangyan.
Gou Ping, a psychology professor at Chengdu University in Sichuan, wants to make sure that her students cultivate a sense of responsibility where love and sex are concerned.
"What we teach students is the principle of 'love and responsibility.' We aim to make students aware that any decision they make while under the rosy influence of love will definitely affect their future for good or for bad. Sex should be seen as a serious activity with lifelong consequences," said Gou, who is also deputy director of APEPCY's adolescent sex education base in Sichuan.
Gou added that the most popular elective in Chengdu University is sex education. The course is in demand so much that all the seats are taken within minutes.
The university is the second higher-education institution in the country offering an academic minor in sex education. Beijing-based Capital Normal University is the first to offer such a course.
Du Li, a teacher in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province, talks with a participant at a sex education class for primary school students' parents on June 23 (YU NAN)
Protecting the future
The popularity of the sex education lessons shows that young people want to be better informed. A lack of sex education creates many problems.
A report released by the National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2015 said the average age of Chinese adolescents having sex for the first time is 15.9 years. As a result, unwanted and teenage pregnancies are on the rise, most of which end in abortion. About 13 million abortions are performed in China every year.
Although there is greater open-mindedness about sexual rights, particularly among youths, a survey conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention last year found that more than half of the Chinese college students who were interviewed had no idea how to use a condom correctly.
This puts young people at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, according to Zhang Jianxin, a professor at the West China School of Public Health, Sichuan University.
Therefore, educating adolescents in the use of contraceptives is also an important component to consider while implementing a comprehensive sex education program.
Experts believe primary school years are the best time for children to learn about sex. "Everyone needs ongoing and age-appropriate sex education to help them develop positive attitudes toward sex," said Gou, adding that primary schools should be encouraged to provide adequate sex education rather than be criticized for such efforts.
But some parents think their children are too young to learn about sex in primary school. The lack of standardized and authoritative teaching materials across the country has also aggravated the situation.
A few years ago, a set of pilot textbooks for school sex education in Beijing sparked a controversy because of the explicit description of intercourse and the accompanying graphic illustrations.
The books were trying to teach children about sex and how to avoid sexual abuse but some parents said the content was too graphic and not suitable for youngsters.
Du thinks sex education should start naturally at home. "As educators, we need to educate children through their families first. In this way, we can ensure that the moral guidance that should go with sex education is cohesive and reinforces traditional sexual norms," Du said.
"There are a lot of misunderstandings about our teaching," said Gou. "Our task is to provide students guidance instead of condoning or encouraging adolescent sexual behavior.”
Observers say that compared to China's older generations, teenagers in the 21st century have more access to sexual information.
"The awareness of gender and sexuality has increased to some extent, but it is still not enough," Zhang Yinjun said.
According to her, to make sex education for adolescents more effective, it has to be integrated into the education system through concerted efforts and understanding by society.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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