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Schools need better sex education
( 2003-07-11 08:56) (China Daily)

Editor's note: Friday is World Population Day, whose theme this year is "Adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights.'' The aim is to highlight the need to support young people in their efforts to lead safe and rewarding lives and contribute to the well-being of their families and communities.

One in every six people on Earth is classified as an adolescent. As a developing country with the world's biggest population, China should pay more attention to the problems faced by the younger generation. China Daily reporters cover the issues relating to this special day.

An expert on adolescent sex education talks with a young woman about sex-related issues at a psychology centre on July 10, 2003 in Jinan, capital of East China's Shandong Province. The centre, founded in March this year, is the first in the province to specialize in providing sexual and reproductive health information to teenagers. [newsphoto.com.cn]
Schools should teach teenagers about sex and parents should provide more psychological support to undergraduates grappling with their sexuality, according to experts.

Currently, young people find out about sex and sexuality from a wide range of sources, including each other, through advertising, television and magazines, leaflets, books and websites, according to Chen Yiyun, professor of the Institute of Sociology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"But I have to say that some of these sources will be accurate and some inaccurate. Our schools and education systems should teach teenagers scientifically about life and their bodies,'' Chen said.

In the past century, the age of puberty has dropped by a year every 25 years in most countries in the world, including China, Chen noted.

In China, girls generally hit puberty at 11 or 12 years of age, while boys do so at 13 or 14 years.

On the other hand, China's young people are delaying marriage. The age of marriage for women is 25.6 and for men is 28.6, especially in urban areas.

"Our education system faces a great challenge in helping young people, who are the future of the country and society, safely through adolescence. We should help prevent teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted disease,'' Chen said.

Accurate information essential

Sex education should start by finding out what young people already know about sex and then add to their existing knowledge and correct any misconceptions they may have.

For example, young people may believe that condoms are not effective against HIV/AIDS or that there is a cure for AIDS. It is important to provide detailed information which corrects mistaken beliefs.

"Without correct information and guidance from experts or doctors, young people may put themselves at greater risk, curbing their development in study and daily life,'' Chen said.

Sex education helps young people develop well-informed attitudes and views about sex and sexuality.

Unfortunately, most sex education is provided by non-governmental and non-profit organizations in China's municipalities or major cities.

Although education administrations have ordered middle schools to teach sex education, the schools have to do little more than buy a sex-education curriculum and hold a lesson as part of classes on birth control policy or even moral education, according to Hu Peicheng, professor of Peking University and secretary-general of the Chinese Sexology Association.

"It is ridiculous, because birth control should be taught to adults.''

Hu said teenagers have different needs for information on sex that should be urgently addressed.

"In the final analysis, many people still get jittery at the mere mention of sex as it is a very sensitive subject or taboo in China,'' Hu said.

Some people are concerned that providing information about sex and sexuality arouses curiosity and can lead to sexual experimentation.

"Some critics even put the blame upon sex educators and accuse them of encouraging moral degeneration or criminal behaviour in teenagers,'' Hu added.

Unlike many Europeans, who learn about sex as matter-of-factly as they learn about brushing their teeth, Chinese children grow up in a sexual bind -- caught between opposing but equally distorted views of sex influenced by tradition.

"One type of distortion comes from parents who also know little about sex. Instead of affirming the child's sexuality, parents convey the message that sex is harmful or shameful,'' Hu said.

Schools therefore should serve as places where trusted adults can teach children scientifically how to protect themselves against the hazards of sex and sexual abuse.

A special night class on sex education, run for the past two years in Beijing's Dongcheng District, has been warmly received by young parents because it helps them answer their child's questions about sex.

Parents tend to be more knowledgeable about the content of sex-education programmes these days, and most rate their school's offerings are excellent or good, Chen said.

School are legally obliged to teach children about adolescence or puberty.

Chen noted that teenagers need to know about what kinds of relationships there are, about love and commitment, marriage and partnership, laws relating to sexual behaviour and relationships, as well as the range of religious and cultural views on sex.

In addition, young people should be provided with information about abortion and sexuality as well as sources of advice and support available in the community and nationally.

Support for undergraduates

Twenty-year-old Wang Lingling (her name has been changed to protect her privacy), a student at a Beijing-based university, has been very distracted in class and in the library in recent months.

She feels there is something wrong with her body and an impulse to masturbate torments her from time to time.

"I began to masturbate out of curiosity and pleasure, following the example of a young housemaid in my family when I entered junior middle school,'' Wang said.

The engineering undergraduate has become depressed and worried since enrolling in the university. She lives with other girls in a dormitory and showers in a public bathroom, like most other students.

Finally, she sought help for her problems from a psychoanalyst on the Internet.

She is one of a growing number of sexually confused and troubled students on campus who have turned to experts via telephone hotlines or the Internet, according to Liu Limin, director of the Information Department of China National Communication and Education Centre for Family Planning.

Students can talk with experts from 20:00 to 22:00 every Saturday at the website: www.greenapple.org.cn, which broadcasts live. Such programmes protect the privacy of young people who can remain anonymous.

"Sex education through the mass media, supported by governmental and non-governmental agencies and departments, can not only help to raise public awareness of sexual health issues, but also provide young people with very good psychological support and sex education,'' Liu said.

"Young people, especially college students, are very interested in the moral and cultural frameworks that binds sex and sexuality,'' Liu added.

They often welcome opportunities to talk about issues on which people have strong views, like abortion, sex before marriage, lesbian and gay issues and contraception.

"Unlike teenagers or middle school students, undergraduates are facing problems of sex psychology -- feelings and love -- as they have some understanding of the physiology of sex,'' said Peng Hong, director of the Psychological Health Centre of China Foreign Affairs University.

"Loneliness encourages some students to live together and try sex without marriage. Some regard cohabitation as the best way to deal with their homesickness,'' Peng said.

"Sometimes, they show indifference to premarital sex; and sometimes they are worried about sex hygiene problem or whether living together will have a negative influence on their future love and family,'' Peng said.

In general, most parents concentrate on their only child's marks from primary school to college and their material life, instead of their child's feelings or psychological needs.

"In addition to sex education in colleges and other channels, parents should pay more attention to undergraduate's psychological needs, becoming their friend and easing their feelings of guilt, fear and anxiety when they encounter sexual problems,'' Pang said.

"Without correct information and guidance from experts or doctors, young people may put themselves at greater risk, curbing their development in study and daily life.''

(By Chen Yiyun, professor of the Institute of Sociology with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.)

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