When I was growing up, sex was everywhere in the household, except that the word ‘sex’ was never mentioned. Books about violent crimes against women were littered around the house and I read every one of them, thinking to some degree that I was reading – and learning – about sex. Living with a single mother who loved salacious stories about illicit affairs and rape but who at the same time warned my sister and myself against getting pregnant without telling us how meant that the voyage to sexual discovery was a lonely one.
Sadly, many other Malaysians are made to go ignorant about their bodies far into adulthood. Today’s article at the Nut Graph (generously excerpted below) reveals the sexual ignorance in Malaysia of both endemic and appalling proportions (a survey found that there are young adults who think that a woman can get pregnant just from sleeping in the same bed with a man) and asks why there is so much foot-dragging in implementing sex education in school.
Before we go to the excerpted article, I wish to ask you, dear readers, where did you get your sex education from? And whether it’s true that knowledge fuels curiosity even more?
Let’s talk about sex … and how ignorant our youth are about it.
Anyone remember the Malaysian science syllabus in secondary school? The chapter with diagrams of male and female genitalia, and little explanation about what to do with them? Perhaps you had a teacher who, with a deadpan face, stuck strictly to the scientific facts about the diagrams and said nothing else about hormones or feelings or sexual intercourse.
Perhaps no one, neither your parents nor teachers told you what sex is for, why people do it, how it is done, when you should have sex, who you should have it with, and the emotional and medical consequences.
Little wonder then that reports about incest and abandoned babies in school toilets or garbage dumpsites have been regular features in our newspapers. Heart-breaking too, are stories of young women who face arrest and prison simply because they “didn’t know what to do” with their dead newborn.
The Nut Graph is both intrigued and appalled by a 30 Aug 2009 New Straits Times report that cited surveys to demonstrate just how uneducated our youths are about sex.
In one survey, conducted by the National Population and Family Development Board, some of the things youths were clueless about were where a foetus develops, and what the male and female reproductive organs are.
In another survey, conducted by Universiti Malaya, there were youths who thought that a woman could get pregnant just by sharing a bed with a man.
At the same time, youths are found to be more sexually active than ever. So, if many youths are exploring something they have little knowledge about, not to mention the maturity to handle, we shouldn’t blame them if they don’t behave responsibly.
Malaysia is still ambivalent on having formal sex education in schools. Till today, there is no formal syllabus. Instead, it is incorporated into subjects like Moral Studies, Islamic Studies, and Biology, says the Education Ministry.
Past government attempts to introduce sex education in schools have seen much tip-toeing around the topic. The government chose to weave sex education into other subjects or tried to deal with it solely in the context of HIV/AIDS. Such measures are of course inadequate.
In the 1990s, there was even debate as to whether the term “sex education” should be used for fear of misunderstanding. The official term accepted then was “family health education”, underlying the patriarchal value that having sex is only for pro-creation and not for pleasure.
But sex education could be so much more than about reproducing to start a family or to stem a disease like HIV/AIDS. Teaching youngsters about sex should involve teaching them about self-respect, responsibility, choice and consequences. A girl must know she has the right to say “no” and a boy must know that girls are not sex objects. Comprehensive sex education could go beyond the scientific and medical facts to address other dimensions like gender equality and sexual diversity, morality, culture and human rights.
Because, beyond the headlines about baby-dumping are larger stakes if sex education is ignored. Our society is already grappling with rising crime, including domestic violence and sexual crimes. There is also rising healthcare costs to consider. Sexually transmitted diseases happen because people don’t know how to take precautions to protect themselves, resulting in additional burdens to the public health care system and a loss in working hours. There is also gender and sexual discrimination which can be addressed through sex education.
It’s hard to fathom just what the authorities are afraid of in the words “sex education” and in teaching the subject itself. Greater knowledge about sexuality does not automatically lead to higher incidences of teenage sex. Ignoring sex education does not mean youths will not have sex, either. The common parental wisdom when dealing with teens, that they’ll do anyway what you tell them not to, is worth remembering. That being the case, isn’t it better for youths to be equipped with knowledge?