Open thread: Sex education. Why are we so afraid?

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?

Read the rest here.

Book cover of the day: The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III

Apparently, this is the author’s best work:

“It’s difficult to love a woman whose vagina is a gateway to the world of the dead . . .”

Book description:

Steve falls madly in love with Stacy, but it isn’t until they move in together that he hears voices coming from Stacy’s southern junction. When a skeletal creature makes it’s way through Stacy into their world, Stacy convinces Steve he must go exploring to find out where this mysterious passage leads. After his fist foray, Steve almost doesn’t make it back from the alternate world, but the next time Stacy sets him up for a full spelunking.

More info on The Haunted Vagina (2006) by Carlton Mellick III, writer of the lost classic Razor Wire Pubic Hair, here and here. There seems to be an underlying theme here…

Seksualiti Merdeka: Coming to terms with the love that dares not speak its name

This was originally published over at Muslimah Media Watch last Monday, on the 31st of August – Malaysia’s national day, popularly known as ‘Merdeka Day’.

Who would have thought that sexuality rights were being celebrated in the historical and cultural heart of the Malaysian capital two weeks ago? Malaysia, like anywhere else (Muslim-majority or not) has long suffered from homophobia and transphobia in the most public of places: unsubstantiated accusations of homosexual behaviour landed one of the most influential politicians in recent times in jail and long-term disgrace. The media, meanwhile, which often sees itself as a moral guardian secondary to religious authorities, takes advantage of Malaysia’s conservatism to paint sexual minorities in the worst possible light. The recent (and very dubious) news report of a “wild” lesbian party attended by Malaysian Muslim women is one such example that smacks of self-righteousness and shameless prurience.

And so I was pleasantly surprised that Seksualiti Merdeka (which roughly translates as Independence of Sexuality) took place without noisy protests or arrests by the moral police. The annual event, launched in 2008, features a program of lectures, workshops, plays, and film screenings demonstrated a kind of unprecedented maturity to broaching issues of sexual identity, sex work, human rights, and moral policing. Malaysia is a country of contradictions, and these contradictions were also present in Seksualiti Merdeka. The event was officiated by Marina Mahathir a human rights activist and AIDS awareness campaigner–and the daughter of the former Malaysian premier, Mahathir Mohamed, who once barred visiting ministers and diplomats who were gay from entering the country and who deposed Anwar Ibrahim for allegedly committing sodomy.

Being surrounded by images that would often be regarded as offensive material and people who were interested in sexuality rights (or those brave enough to attend to satisfy their curiosity of how the sexual Other look like in non-stereotypical circumstances, i.e. not in gay bars and massage parlors) was new to me. Sitting at a film screening of Bukak Api (Open Fire, 2000), starring Malay-Muslim transfemale sex workers, in all its uncensored glory, was new to me. Bukak Api brought home the message that even in the most conservative societies, you can’t talk about AIDS, pregnancy, and violence against women without talking about sex. This is illustrated in a scene where one sex worker laments about being aware about AIDS only through snappy campaign slogans (”Love your family, stay away from HIV”) and nothing in terms of modes of infection and prevention, resulting in her unknowingly contracting the virus – sadly true to life.

Witnessing this sea change, I wondered whether the time has finally come for Malaysians to recognize sexual diversity as a non-threatening, normal, and ultimately, acceptable, fact of life. But then I began to notice with every event I attended that Seksualiti Merdeka attracted a crowd of the distinctively urban, foreign/highly-educated, English-speaking, relatively well-to-do, and liberal type. Perhaps not every Malaysian is ready yet. Perhaps not the young, working-class Malay-Muslim couples who get arrested for close proximity in cheap hotels or in their cars because they cannot afford to hire rooms in five-star hotels or go to places abroad where they are beyond the reach of snooping moral guardians.

Seksualiti Merdeka implicitly demonstrated the class divide that divides people’s opinions about sexuality: if you’re young, urban, well-educated, fluent in English and media-savvy you are likely to support open discourse on sexuality rights in Malaysia, and if you’re not all that then it’s likely you’ll find talking about such issues publicly inappropriate.

But leaving Malaysia a few days later, I realized that I was leaving a country with a potential to return power back to the people who, for decades, live under the paternalistic thumb of its leaders. It was great to see the freedom and effort in raising sex and sexuality as issues that concern everybody, hence the popular and highly-accessible venue Central Market. It was better that the event hasn’t yet reached a more representative audience than not exist at all. But real engagement about morality and rights to privacy needs to happen between those whose opinions are at odds with each other, and not between those who openly show their liberal colors.