Talking about sex with kids

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Liu Yajun, a primary school teacher in her 40s in Beijing, was trying to talk about reproductive organs with her 11-year-old students, but she found herself too embarrassed to open her mouth.

Sex, in traditional Chinese culture, is a taboo that is not supposed to be talked about openly, especially to children. When their children ask "where am I from", many parents would answer "you were picked up from a trash can".

Juveniles are taught about their reproductive organs in a high school course "physical hygiene." But, mostly, the course teachers simply let their students to read the textbooks on their own. There are no specific sexual education courses in Chinese public schools.

A dozen of primary schools in Beijing, including the school affiliated to Beijing Medical University where Liu teaches, are trying to make breakthroughs in sex education.

"We showed videos about physiological changes in adolescence to our boys and girls separately. When we were showing the girls' movie, the boys were curious and watched through a window. Children really want to know about it," said Liu.

In a game of the sex education class in Hepingli No. 1 Primary School, boys, playing the part of sperms, vied with each other to pass obstacles to meet the girls who were playing the part of ovum. Through the game, they were taught how a sperm meets and fertilizes an ovum.

The nine-year-old children in Anhuili Central Primary School were led to visit the restrooms of opposite sex to know about the difference between boys and girls.

Sun Yunxiao, deputy director of China Youth Research Center, said, "promoting sex education in primary school is an important progress. However, this endeavor is something rare in China, where sex education is fairly backward. China lacks the teachers, textbooks and modern concepts it needs to improve sex education."

The adolescent age of Chinese children arrives early because of better nutrition. Researches show that the average age of puberty among Chinese girls is 9.2, said experts.

"Sex education should start before pubertal development. Children don't know how to protect their health if they lack understanding about their body and sexual health," Sun said.

A survey on 164 million unmarried people aged 15 to 24, conducted in 2010 by the Population Research Institute at Beijing University, indicated that 22.4 percent had sexual intercourse, and half of whom they did not use contraception at the first sex.

Of the girls who are sexually active, more than 20 percent experienced unwanted pregnancies. And 91 percent of the unwanted pregnancies ended in abortion. Only 4.4 percent of those surveyed were found to be knowledgeable about sexual health, while 14.4 percent knew how to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Zong Chunshan, director of the Beijing Youth Law and Psychology Consultancy Center, said that one third of the phone calls his center has received recently have been concerned with sexual health, a 25-percent increase over the amount received over the last two decades.

"Young people's sex-related problems have gotten deeper. Their questions used to concern mundane things, like masturbation. But in recent years, there have been more questions about sexual relations, pregnancy and abortion," said Zong, who is also a council member of the Beijing Sex Education Association.

"About one-sixth of the calls we receive to our hotline are actually obscene calls. The callers, mostly in their early 20s, are not aiming to consult with us, but to satisfy abnormal sexual needs. Abnormal sexual needs are a typical outcome of poor sex education," Zong said.

"The greatest impact of a lack of sex education is the backward belief that sex is a dirty thing. If sex is repressed and cannot be treated in a healthy way, it can cause people to develop abnormal and morbid desires," said Zong.

In China, parents and schools focus on their children's academic records, but often fail to take their psychological needs into account. For instance, children are almost always forbidden from engaging in any kind of romantic relationship until they graduate from high school - and even then, parents often attempt to keep a strong grip on their children's behavior.

At the same time, reports of teenage pregnancies are increasing. More and more teachers and parents are becoming aware that it is important to promote sex education.

"Although some scattered provisions about sex education can be found in China's laws and regulations, it isn't currently feasible for teachers to follow them. There are no specialized teaching disciplines, no appropriate textbooks and no curricula for sex education in primary and middle schools," said Zhang Meimei, director of the Sex Education Research Center under Capital Normal University.

"It's like a fire fighting. Only when there are some accidents or problems happening, maybe a lecture or consultation would be held in schools. But there is no regular class for sex education," said Zhang.

Some non-governmental organizations including those from foreign countries have introduced western concepts of sex education to China. But experts doubt the feasibility of those methods in China.

Sun Yunxiao said every nation has its own cultural trait. Those sex education videos which are very open and direct are not suitable to be shown in China. "Being asked 'where am I from,' a western mother could take off her pants to show the kid. But few Chinese parents could do that."

In order to find the appropriate sex education methods, Zhang's center worked with the Beijing Municipal Education Commission to launch a pilot program in 2009 to improve sex education in Beijing. A sex education guideline for students between the ages of six and 18 was drafted and tested in primary and middle schools in the city.

When the program started, just 10 primary schools and 20 middle schools participated in its first stages. However, a total of 48 primary and middle schools joined the program this year.

"China doesn't really have any teachers with a sex education background. The teachers participating in the program come from a variety of disciplines, such as biology, psychology and mathematics. We use our sex education guideline to train these teachers. They are then allowed to find a more specific teaching method that is suitable for their personal teaching style," said Zhang.

"At the beginning, I had a superficial understanding about sex education. I thought it was more concerned with physiology, and I felt embarrassed to talk about it with the kids. But after being trained by experts, I know that sex education allows us to teach our students how to be healthy, happy and confident people," said Liu Yajun.

"I think the effect has been good. The boys become happy with their voices change, as they know it's a symbol of growing up," Liu said.

However, promoting sex education in primary schools has drawn protest from some of the children's parents. They think it's too early to talk about the subject with their children.

One textbook to be used in one of the city's primary schools has sparked controversy. Parents criticized the textbook for its "pornographic" illustrations.

An online survey conducted by, a popular Chinese web portal, showed that although about 47 percent of those surveyed think the textbook is a sign of progress in China, more than 37 percent worry that a break in traditional teaching methods might produce undesirable results.

"Most of today's parents received no sex education when they were growing up. It's understandable that they have these worries. But international experience shows that children who have received sex education are less likely to engage in sexual behavior, as they are less curious about it and have a more serious attitude about it," said Sun.

"Although sex education is still in an exploratory stage in China, it's better than not having any at all," said Zong

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