Sexologist pushes for sex education among China’s young

By Zhang Yiqian in Jinan Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-4 18:43:01

Last weekend, a training session for middle and high school teachers on sex education was held in Jinan, East China's Shandong Province. Right now, there isn't a national curriculum for sex education in China, there are only classes focusing on physical health. To change the situation, sexologist Fang Gang has spent two years working on a lesson book, which he hopes will plant the seeds for a changed curriculum.

Fang Gang, a sexologist from Beijing Forestry University, gives a lecture on sex education at the Jinan Foreign Language School on January 31. Photo: Courtesy of Wen Xueqi

It's not the first time Fang Gang has talked about masturbation in front of a crowd. Nor the first time he has talked about incest, homosexuality, or simply the correct way to use a condom. In some cases he even carries a condom or two around to show people.

The sexologist from Beijing Forestry University often uses his son in his speeches, telling people how he talked to his son about masturbation, telling him it's a normal phenomenon but asking him to do it properly.

Last weekend, Fang gave his speech again, this time at a seminar held at the Jinan Foreign Language School in Jinan, Shandong Province, to more than 400 teachers, volunteers and consultants from all over the province. Some of these teachers have had some experience teaching sex education, but many themselves have never had any training.

The purpose of the seminar was to teach the teachers how to use a lesson book created by Fang. Fang said that even though China currently has no national curriculum on sex education, he hopes the teachers will go back and transmit at least a little of what they learn at this seminar to their students. He hopes someday a standardized sex-ed curriculum will become a reality, even though it seems to be a faint hope right now.

A pair of middle school students in a park in Shanghai Photo: CFP

Teaching the teachers

Fang has given many talks around the country to teachers, he said, but this is the first time his talk includes lesson-planning that could be used in developing an in-classroom curriculum. He spent the last two years writing the book with input from many other experts in sex education.

"The book is based on recent experiences with sexuality education from around the world. Everything in it has been proven to be beneficial to young kids, and we followed UNESCO's International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education," Fang said.

The book involves around one concept - sex is a fundamental human right.

The book covers a variety of topics, from puberty to love and sex, to gender equality. Specific topics include women's periods, breast development, masturbation, dating, homophobia and preventing sexual violence. Most have never been covered in China's schools before.

At the present, China does not have a nationally unified sex-ed curriculum. Sex education is typically taught in psychology or hygiene classes and focuses more on biology of the sexes, with content varying from school to school.

Wen Xueqi is one of the organizers of the training session. He is a psychology teacher from the Shandong Experimental High School in Jinan and a member of the Jinan Psychology Education Website, hosted by the Jinan Education Bureau.

He said at first he wanted to organize the session with official recognition, but the provincial education bureau didn't agree. As a result, the teachers signed up on a voluntary basis after news of the session was spread on social media.

A touchy subject

Many of the teachers present came to the training because they had run into challenges they didn't know how to overcome in teaching sex education.

Zhan Ling, a psychology teacher from Anhui Province, said she's had students who asked the teachers about love and sex, as well as students who came to consulting hours with issues such as whether it's normal to masturbate. Teachers don't usually know how to answer these questions properly.

"It's time for teachers to become better equipped," she said.

At the seminar, Fang led a discussion on issues teachers have run into in the past when the topic of sex is concerned. Many said parents and school directors were too cautious in this field.

One teacher told the story of a fifth grader in her class who sent an animated pornographic picture into a QQ chat group that had parents, teachers and students. The picture startled some parents, who insisted the student's action showed he had personality issues.

The teacher thought the student didn't have any malicious intentions. He was probably just curious about the human body at that age. But one parent who was in the QQ chat group thought the incident was a big deal, and asked for the matter to be "handled seriously," including having the boy apologize to the whole class in person.

Fang suggested that the teacher should communicate with the parent and "educate" him that it's normal for children to behave this way at an age when they are expressing curiosity about sex. What the boy did was inappropriate, but he should be taught, not shamed.

Jinan is far from the only city where sex education is making fitful progress.

In 2007, the Shenzhen Education Bureau released an official sex-ed textbook for elementary and middle school students. It was used by 24 schools in a trial run. The book talks about the menstrual cycle, masturbation, as well as abstinence and avoiding sexual harassment.

But not long afterwards, schools started to receive complaints from parents. The pilot was never expanded.

Not only sex education, but the subject of sex itself is still frowned upon by many in China, with sexologists often coming under fire for their work. One well-known case last year saw a professor from Central China Normal University have feces thrown at him by a middle-aged woman, who claimed his talks on sex were degrading societal standards.

Planting the seed 

Not all teachers agree with everything presented in the book. When Fang talked about teaching students about sexual diversity, such as homosexuality and bisexuality, one teacher stood up and objected, saying that students might imitate these lifestyles if they found out more about them.

Fang answered that we need to expose the students to all types of lifestyles and give them the right to choose to be who they are.

At the end of the two-day session, by a show of hands, half the teachers said they accept everything written in the book, while the other half still had doubts about some chapters and the practicality of the book. Fang sees that as a starting point at least.

The next step is for the teachers to go back and apply what they've learned in their individual schools, including teaching chapters of Fang's book in their psychology classes.

Since there's no officially designed sex-ed curriculum, whether teachers can use Fang's lesson planning book will depend on the attitude of their schools.

"It would be much easier [if we could] get the principals and directors of education bureaus together to hear a talk on sex education," Wen said. "But unfortunately it's almost impossible to execute."

Jinan had already had a test run in 2013. A total of 44 teachers from the city taught some parts of Fang's book in their own schools.

Han Haiping, a psychology teacher at Shandong Experimental High School, said the feedback she received from her students was positive.

At the opening of the first class, she asked the students to write down what do they think of when they hear the word "sex." The responses showed a variety of subjects, such as "having an affair," "blowjob," "rape," or "homosexuality."

"The students know everything nowadays. These were freshmen in high school," she said. She believes there's no point in keeping the students in the dark and says teachers might as well discuss such issues openly.

She taught three chapters from Fang's book, focusing on love and sex. After the first class, some students uploaded a questionnaire from the book to a forum on the school website, where it became an immediate hit. Afterwards, many students from other classes came to ask her whether they could take the class next semester.

Miao Jingwen, a psychology teacher from Wangdao Elementary School in Weihai, Shandong Province, is planning to incorporate the book in her class next semester.

Previously, her school's sex education only covered the physical changes during puberty, with psychology teachers teaching boys and girls in separate classes.

"But I learned during the training that this is the wrong way to do it, that these matters should be discussed openly," she said.

Her school is supporting her. Sun Yamin, her school's vice principal, said the directors of the school board all thought it's necessary to have sex education, even at a young age.

"It started because children started asking questions in class, such as the parts of the human body. Some of the older teachers were too embarrassed to answer them, but we thought it's an important issue and we decided we needed classes on it," she said.

Next semester, the school will have sex-ed classes for all students, tailored to the children's level of maturity. Classes will also be held for teachers and parents on how to answer the children's questions.

Fang said even though he's not sure how much the situation will improve, but he thinks it's at least a start.

"We've planted the seeds at this point, we'll wait to see how many flowers will bloom," he said.

Newspaper headline: The birds and the bees

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