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A question that every parent dreads

Updated: 2010-12-20 07:38
By Cao Li ( China Daily)

Shyness over children's sex education can cause deep distress later. Cao Li in Beijing reports.

Wang Wei was a little boy when he asked his mother the question many parents dread to hear: Where do babies come from? The answer he received that day was a lie - but try telling him that.

A question that every parent dreads
Students from the No 3 Primary School in Beijing's Huairou district listen to information about sexual health at an exhibition last week in the capital. [Photo/China Daily]

Now 15, the Beijing schoolboy still believes he was "found as a baby in a pile of rubbish", explained Wen Fang, director of Xicheng district's Youth Health Center, who talked to Wang when he called for advice on how to sue his "fake parents".

Although extreme, Wen, a therapist for more than 25 years, said the case highlights the taboo that exists about sex education in China.

Not only is the information shortfall causing confusion for teenagers at a delicate stage of physical and emotional development, it is also indirectly behind the soaring abortion rate and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Experts also argue a lack of sexual knowledge is leading to higher divorce rates and a peak in shengnu, "leftover women" unable to find husbands.

"Some (men and women) just don't know how to deal with relationships and how to communicate with partners," said Zhang Meimei, deputy director of the capital's Sexual Health Education Institute.

The country has spent more than 30 years opening up its society and economy, yet the standard of sex education has failed to keep up, with many conservatives fearing that talking about sex will inevitably encourage children to start having intercourse.

Even for those exploring new educational methods, standards are still not in place, while most still carefully avoid the word "sex".

Last year, researchers at Peking University surveyed more than 22,000 youngsters aged 15 to 24 across 25 provinces. Although 22.4 percent admitted losing their virginity, only 4.4 percent were found to have a clear understanding of sexual health.

Roughly half of respondents said they did not use protection the first time and, of the female students who had sex, one-fifth said they have been pregnant, with 5 percent pregnant more than once (90 percent underwent abortions).

A question that every parent dreads

Top: Xia Wu (right), a student from No 3 Primary School in Beijing's Huairou district, learns about how sperm meets the egg by playing an interactive game at a sex education exhibition last week.
Above: Jin Xuan, a columnist for a teen magazine, reads one of the hundreds of reader's letters she receives every month from schoolchildren. [Photo/China Daily]

As well as the early onset of puberty, health studies show that youngsters are now a high-risk group in terms of HIV and AIDS infection.

"People easily fall over in the darkness," said Chen Shouliang, 80, a retired professor and one of the first to lecture on sex in China. "The more you try to hide (knowledge), the more curious children become."

He complained that most schools and universities "don't even address the basics about sex".

Grown-up talk

In contrast to what is going on in the classroom, the level of information available on the Internet has exploded in recent decades. Unfortunately, not all of it is reliable, which adds to the confusion.

Nothing can replace systematic education, argues Chen, who in the mid-1990s pioneered an optional course on the science of sex at Peking University. The lecture is still popular today.

"Children will find out about sex no matter whether you teach them or not but helping them to build up a sound knowledge could save (students) a lot of trouble," he said.

Several Beijing elementary schools contacted by China Daily said they do provide lessons on puberty, but time is limited.

At Shaoyaoju Primary School, six-graders receive just one 40-minute class on the subject. "We can't allow more time for that," said divisional director Liu Yonghong.

A pupil aged 12 at No 3 Primary School in Huairou district said he learned about sperm and eggs from television, his blushing face betraying his embarrassment as he talked. Although curious, he admitted he has never talked with his parents about sex because "its for grown-ups".

Boarding school student Kang Yuanfei, 17, who comes from a suburban county in Northwest China's Shaanxi province, said sex is an "alien concept" to him and his friends.

"No one has taught me anything about (sex)," he said. "During biology classes, teachers asked us to read the chapters about sex ourselves as it isn't required with entrance examinations. When someone did ask about how sperm meets with the egg to make a baby, the teacher stiffly refused to answer."

He also expressed curiosity in learning more because several of his classmates have started dating.

"I don't really discuss sex with my friends. We wouldn't know where to start. I know there is information on the Web but only classmates from rich families have their own computers," added Kang.

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