Once taboo, sex education courses have been added to the curriculum of 200 of Beijing's 567 high schools since 1989, according to Song Yuzhen, director of the Moral Education Department of Beijing Education Commission.
But not all students find the course attractive.
At the High School Affiliated with Beijing's Institute of Technology, one of the pilot schools for Beijing's first launch of sex textbooks in 2002, the course starts in the seventh grade with one 40-minute class per week.
Senior high school students attend four classes on sex education every semester.
Entitled Guidelines on Sexual Health, the textbooks, respectively for junior and senior high school students, examine how to confront sexual harassment and discuss safe sex and contraceptive measures, among other sex-related topics.
Despite the fact the late Premier Zhou Enlai ordered sex knowledge to be disseminated to pre-pubescent teens back in 1963, it wasn't until 30 years later that sex education was officially embraced by the school curriculum.
The Ministry of Health and the State Education Commission, now Ministry of Education, made it clear in 1993 that "adolescence education" should be conducted in primary and high schools and defined it as "tri-fold education" on sexual physiology, sexual psychology and sexual morality.
But it took another 10 years before textbooks for sex education courses became available in Beijing, Heilongjiang, Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangdong and other parts of the country.
Content too rudimentary
However, there is still much resistance against such education among parents even in some developed areas.
A random survey conducted by a local newspaper in Nanjing last December revealed that only 10 of 96 parents approved of sex education in school.
Even more overwhelming dissatisfaction was uncovered by two Beijing youths - Chen Xi and Lin Weifeng - who challenged current sex education policy by conducting a survey of 3,000 high school students in 2002.
In a research paper that won first prize in the Beijing youth science innovation contest last year, Chen and Lin concluded that none of the 3,000 students in Beijing and other parts of the country who responded to their survey was satisfied with sex education at school.
Also, "Nearly 70 percent of them are not against premarital sexual experience, contrary to what is taught in class," the paper stated.
The 17-year-old Lin, from Beijing's Huiwen High School, finds sex education classes boring, saying the teacher "just briefs us with terminology of sexual parts of the human body and then warns us not to engage in any love affair at such a young age."
Chen Xi, now a 12th grader at the High School Affiliated to the Renmin University of China, says he and Lin conducted the survey "in order to show educators what we students really need from sex education."
Song Yuzhen of the Beijing Education Commission sees the point in their criticism. Because academic scores rather than sex education lessons determine the students' chances to enter university, Song observes, sex education classes often interfere with studies of required courses like math and physics.
A high school teacher in Beijing who requested anonymity admits most of her colleagues don't know or don't care about what students want on this topic. Many still feel the subject "too sensitive to handle," she says.
Zhang Yinmo, an editor with eight years experience in youth magazines, notes "the course design is far behind the demand of students," and sex education is so much about promoting chastity rather than ensuring safety, while caring too much about curbing the spread of STD (sexually transmitted diseases) but neglecting the natural curiosity that accompanies students' sexual maturity.
Studies indicate that in China today, boys on average have their first ejaculation at age 13.15, while girls begin menstruating at 12.32 - both younger than their parents' generation.
"How can they be happy with their life in the future if they are empty-minded about sex?" asks Sun Bin, a teacher at Beijing's Luxun High School.
Doctor Deng Jun of Beijing No 2 Hospital has witnessed the failure of sex education at school, as 50 of the 90 young women who have been to the hospitals' adolescence clinic this year got pregnant. "Few of them have any idea that they should have used condoms when having sexual activities," says Deng.
Zhang Yinmo has co-authored a book entitled Roses Concealed in a School Bag, recording tales of 13 sexually active high school students born between 1980 and 1984. All of them have been doing well in their academic studies but feel sex education at school is too boring to give it an ear. So they all missed what their teachers said about safe sex and none of them took any protective measures when they had sex. The book is now popular among many teenagers and their parents.
Despite their criticism of sex education at school, most respondents to Chen and Lin's survey said school was the most desirable channel to gain sexual knowledge, although information can also be acquired via the Internet, friends and magazines. Some other surveys indicate that only 7 percent of parents are able to give proper sex education to their children.
Psychology to be stressed
Cao Yuwen, director of the Moral Education Department of the High School Affiliated with Beijing's Institute of Technology, sees room for improvement in sex education.
"The course has been focusing on how the body's sexual system functions and on sexual development and reproduction, but sexual morality and psychology have been ignored," says Cao.
She feels the latter is more important, because students "need to have information about the physical and emotional changes associated with puberty and sexual reproduction, including fertilization and conception and about sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS."
The real problem here is not sex education itself but whether the education is adequate, says Ji Chengye, director of the Centre for the Youth Sexual Health Research. "When they have the knowledge of sex, teenagers build up self-confidence because they know what kind of sexual behaviors are dangerous and what kind of things they should never do."
Besides training students, some schools also invite experts to lecture parents at least once a semester. "Sometimes it is difficult for adults to know when to raise the issue to their kids, but the important thing is to maintain an open relationship with them," Cao says.
Given that teenagers are sexually active but not yet psychologically and physiologically mature, they often defy traditional disciplines both at home and school, which may lead to puppy love and even elopement. Therefore, "sex education, besides imparting knowledge about the human body, must shoulder the responsibility of cultivating a healthy personality," says Bu Wei, researcher on communication with children at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Moreover, she points out that sex education is not about setting prohibitions on teenagers. Only the students themselves can say yes or no to their bodies. What adults, including parents and educators, can do is to provide students with the right to knowledge and choice.
"First, they should be adequately informed of potential dangers related to having sex at a young age, and of different potential results," says Bu. "Ultimately, it is up to students to pick a road for themselves."
(China Daily April 22, 2004)