Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Let's talk about sex education in Taiwan


It's a popular expat pastime to point out ways that Taiwan is different from one's home country - you know, the typical "back home we have churches but here we have temples" type of narrative. I do it myself sometimes. There's nothing wrong with that type of story - vive la difference and all - but it's interesting sometimes to look at ways in which countries on two different ends of the world are more alike than they are different - for better or worse. And sometimes both.

This is one of those "both" times - an interesting article appeared on NPR pointing out Taiwan's forward thinking sex education curriculum (although implementation is far from perfect, as teachers incorporate it into other subjects as they see fit) as well as opposition to it. Both good (the modern, pragmatic curriculum content) and bad (anti-gay groups saying the same-sex relationship education is 'improper') are quite similar to the debate over this issue that goes on in my own country.

I've long been critical of sex education in the USA - as the article points out, what is taught (if anything) is state rather than federally mandated, so American children in different states might graduate with wildly different knowledge about sex and reproduction. More age-appropriate knowledge is always better in this regard (with "age appropriate" meaning "a strong knowledge base before a young person becomes sexually active, and whatever knowledge they are curious about regardless of age"), so it is never a good thing for a student in one state to have less knowledge than a student in another. When sex ed is taught, as it was in my school, I wonder about the content. I learned about sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction, but did not learn much about female anatomy - I had to inquire on my own to learn that one can pee with a tampon in, for example, and that's just unfortunate as it should have been taught - and nothing at all about physically and emotionally healthy sexual relationships (with the emotional part especially ignored). I learned that from a combination of talking with my mother, reading a book she'd given me, and honestly, learning on my own.

Imagine if I hadn't had a good upbringing or open-minded mother. Imagine what I might not have known about healthy sexuality simply because I was born into a more conservative family or state. Imagine how much of a problem that might have been for me as an adult - even with a pretty good education in these matters from home, I still made (relatively minor) mistakes. What sorts of bigger mistakes might I have made without this healthy upbringing?

And, frankly, I think it's just stupid to pretend sex - and how to enjoy it in a healthy way - is somehow a shameful topic that we must avoid talking about to children or even in (some) polite company. Everyone is either doin' it, will do it, or wants to do it. It makes about as much sense to pretend it doesn't exist as not building public bathrooms (we all excrete, too) or not eating in public or even talking about eating or admitting we eat. I also think it's stupid to consider basic health education, including how to have healthy relationships in general, as inappropriate for children. If you're old enough to notice that you have sex organs, you are old enough to know what they're for. If you're old enough to know how and why you poop, you are old enough to know how babies are made. If you're old enough to know that your parents (hopefully) have sex, you're old enough to know the good things and dangers of doing it yourself.

And if you're old enough to ask, you're old enough to deserve an answer.

So, yeah, not too happy with my own country on this front. If we could stop being so terrified of a basic (and fun!) biological function, maybe we could have a happier and healthier population as a whole. If we could do that, maybe we could understand this biology in a more evidence-based way, which would lead to less misogyny and gender discrimination and less homophobia and anti-gay fearmongering.

As for Taiwan, frankly, I'm not sure what to make of sex ed here. I know a curriculum exists, and I have seen with my own eyes attempts at public service campaigns on the topic: I once had a culture shock moment in the MRT as I watched a safe sex commercial play on the televisions that announce the time of the next train. And yet, I'm  surprised by how often I come across straight-up head-scratcher beliefs. For example:

- That you cannot or should not use a tampon if you are a virgin
- That if you merely sleep in the same bed as a person of the opposite sex, you might get pregnant
- That if you drink cold drinks on your period, the menstrual lining will "harden" and stop flowing out (I know this one comes from older Chinese beliefs, but to me, hearing it is akin to hearing a Westerner talk about the healing properties of leeches)
- That homosexuality leads to AIDS epidemics
- That the percentage of LGBT people would decrease if we'd only raise children a certain way
- That it is "not normal" to be gay (often backed up with painfully flawed historical or demographic arguments)
- That criminalizing sex work will stop it
- That teaching abstinence or withholding education will stop young people from having sex
- That men "always" want to have sex but women "usually don't"
- That sex is a female "duty" to her husband, basically, aside from the whole no-cold-drinks-on-yer-period thing it's more or less just like the US. As I don't think the US's sex education programs are particularly praiseworthy, I also have to wonder if Taiwan's national program is effective as so many of the same myths and misconceptions persist. It's even the same people - those anti-gay, usually religious types who are a few conspiracy theories shy of thinking the Earth is flat, who want to impose their ridiculous and frankly made-up morality on the rest of us - causing trouble and spreading lies.

A little slice of America in the Far East. In the worst possible way.

It's a shame, because unlike the US where a Puritanical past coupled with (pun intended) waves of immigrants who, while they bring diversity to the US, might not exactly bring a cutting-edge understanding of sexuality, this never had to be the outcome in Taiwan. Taiwanese culture is often dismissed as "conservative" and "repressed" by foreigners who don't know better, but the reality is a lot more complicated than that, and is not necessarily always conservative by Western standards. There is room in Taiwanese culture to be open about these things.

And then there's hilarity like this:


This brochure is outdated now, but I still think it proves a point. I had originally thought of it as a good thing: an attempt to educate, albeit a flawed one. Now, I'm not so sure. Why is it in English? I don't remember seeing a similar on in Chinese (although one might exist). Do they think foreigners need to be educated to avoid "seductions in cities"? Are we seen as the problem? That's a problem in itself, but the childish presentation and straight-up hilarious English - why on Earth did they think that "工欲善其事,必先利其器" was a good idiom to use? This alone renders it useless and ineffective for even this misguided goal.

What's more, instead of all the useful information they could have put on the back, they chose "avoid seductions", "flowers with dazzling beauty can take your life" and...sharpening tools?

Despite all that talk of a progressive national sex education curriculum, is this really what it boils down to?

I don't know, as I don't work in a public school, I don't research this issue and although I've had friends tell me they had very little or no sex education in school, they are all old enough that their observations would not necessarily reflect today's reality.

So I'm not sure what to think, but I do know that Taiwan can, and should, improve in this area. It is entirely in keeping with local culture that it do so.


Nathaniel Dahl said...

I grew up in America during the years where "the talk" typically went something like this: "Sex it dirty - so save it for the one you love!"


Pekingese said...

LOL! The "Chinglish" is strong in this brochure. It's obvious that some lowly civil servant was responsible at this poor attempt to comply with making the materials bilingual as per government policy, and cutting corners on not getting an English copy editor for the English portion. At least it wasn't completely Google-translated.

Thankfully, there are now gender experts working on producing better education content.

Zla'od said...

Remember when the Taipei city government collected second-hand (NB: not *used*) feminine hygiene products to distribute as good-luck charms to women hoping to get pregnant? That episode made the international news.

Unknown said...

It's interesting that you decry that sex education is different in the U.S. from one state to the next, yet you say nothing about the assumption that all children of a certain age should get the same sex education. Kids mature at different rates, & what may be appropriate for one 13 year old may not be for another. This "one size fits all" phenomenon that you decry by geography you have no problem with on the most important measurement there is: the individual. How can a school adapt? It probably can't effectively do so. SO ineffective it is, that sex education should be left to the home. This is an intimate topic that the State has no business being involved in. Different kids are ready for different things at different times, especially when it comes to personal biology. Proponents of "early & often" sex education point to the decreasing rate of teenage pregnancy. Correlation is not causation. In fact, sexual activity has been following the same path as sex education: early & often. Kids taught about sex will have sex. The physical part, the necessary outcome, is just one part of the equation. Ignoring the psychological impact of early activity is naive at best, sociopathic as worst, and creates a ready market for pedophiles. Using NPR as a touch-stone is similarly naive. AS IF NPR doesn't have a perspective, a bias, an agenda. Setting the bar of behavior low virtually ensures you'll get the result. Teach kids its okay to have sex and they'll think its okay to have sex and you'll get a lot of kids having sex. Some won't, there will be outliers, those that wait for marriage. Set it high, and you'll have more follow that path. Sure you'll have some outliers, kids having sex out of wedlock, but they will be the exception. You get what you accept. The two countries, Taiwan & the U.S., have vastly different social structures and are thus able to deal with variances differently. On one of my many visits to Taiwan I once asked about one of those stores that sells cigarettes & gum made of plexi-glass almost invariably staffed by a pretty, scantily clad girl that was out in the middle of no-where (south of Pindon) and I asked "Why doesn't she get raped out here?" A better question would have been "Why would she be raped in the U.S.?" I got my answer, but to assume that the norms of one country should be applied to another, or that the readiness for sex education should be applied equally across all ages is arrogance that impacts the lives of the people being taught how to have sex.

Jenna Cody said...

There have always been, and I would support continuing, methods whereby parents have some control of the sex education their children get in school. If they really feel their child is not ready at the age sex education is typically given, they can opt out (as far as I'm aware, that's the case now - it was when I was in school many years ago).

I do not at all agree that sex education should be left to the parents, because then there's just no guarantee you'll get a well-educated population (it's the same reason why I'm skeptical of homeschooling or schooling where the curriculum needs no higher-level approval: you just have no idea what the quality will be. This is especially a problem for kids of different sexual orientations with intolerant families, and can have gender impacts if the families involved have a parent with sexist views leading sex education. So no, I just can't agree with you there. You pronounce your idea as fact - this is what's best, but...I'm sorry, it's not.

I actually have no problem with increased rates of sexual activity in youth. I have no issue with sex out of wedlock (I had it, and I bet you did too. If you didn't...well, nobody has to if they don't want to, but that'd be unusual). So what you talk about as a possible downside I see as not a problem at all. What I want to see are teenagers who feel empowered to experiment, and know how to do so safely. I'm fine with more sex, as long as it's safer sex.

I also have no problem with betel nut girls, whom you seem to automatically devalue and mark for rape because of how they dress. Why do you do that? The real question is, "isn't it great that she can take a job and wear what she wants and not get raped? Awesome!"

Basically, everything you list as a downside or a problem and then call me "arrogant" for ignoring, I either see as not a problem, or actually an upside. You take a conservative and I'd say outdated and problematic (in terms of creating problems for people, making them more repressed based on pointless and patriarchal social standards that serve no useful purpose) view of what society should be and assume we all agree with it, but I don't. You assume I have a problem with betel nut beauties. You assume we all agree kids should have less sex (rather than safer sex). But...that's quite wrong.

THAT is the real arrogance here.