ST: Let’s talk to teens about sex

Straits Times

1 May 2009

By Chua Mui Hoong, Senior Writer

WITH sex in the news, I asked my 13-year-old niece: ‘Do you have sexuality education in school?’

‘Yes, my teacher says it’s okay to watch porn!’ she announced cheerfully.

I blinked. ‘What was the context? Did she say, only for adults or something?’

‘Um, she said it’s okay to watch but don’t watch every day otherwise you can get hooked,’ she said, nose wrinkling in recall.

‘And what did you learn about sex before marriage?’

‘She said you can’t prevent teen sex so you must have safe sex,’ she said.

Her summary may of course be suspect. But whatever the teacher’s intention was in her neighbourhood secondary school, these were the messages my niece and her friends received from the lessons.

I said: ‘You know your teacher is wrong, ya? We are Catholics and the church teaches no sex before marriage. Watching porn gives you a perverted idea of sex. Sex is a loving act between a committed couple married to each other.’

She nodded. In the nature of things, today’s average 13-year-old gets inundated with mixed messages on issues from what to wear and how to behave to whether it’s okay to eat pork during a swine flu pandemic and whether one sneeze counts as a flu symptom.

Getting conflicting signals from the adults and the authorities around her on sexuality is part and parcel of being a teen in modern Singapore.

Still, I wonder if there can be better partnership between schools and family, so that the messages sent to teens on sexuality are congruent.

One good thing that has come about from the ongoing battle for control over women’s group Aware is that the spotlight is on sexuality education in schools.

Aware has a new executive committee consisting of mainly new members who joined in the last year. The group’s members, at least four of whom attend the same church, said they were concerned about a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programme Aware brought to 11 schools. They said the programme promoted homosexuality, although Aware members familiar with it said it discussed homosexuality tangentially and without value judgments.

Sex education in schools is a hot-button issue, fraught with concerns over moral and religious values. There is no such thing as a value-free sex education.

Although the new Aware exco focused on homosexuality as a key threat to family values, in fact the key distinction in sex education programmes is whether they promote abstinence only, or include information on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Advocates and well-organised groups on both sides will point to voluminous research to argue their case. Essentially, those who advocate an abstinence-only message say that teaching teens about contraception, STDs and abortion tempts them into having sex earlier and experimenting more.

Others point to a World Health Organisation study of 35 sex education programmes around the world. This found no evidence that comprehensive programmes encourage sexual activity, and concluded that abstinence-only programmes are less effective than comprehensive classes that promote abstinence and also teach about contraception and disease prevention.

What is a parent or concerned aunt to do? First, find out just what the MOE’s stand is on sex education. Its website reminds parents that the main responsibility for sex education lies with parents, not schools. What the school teaches should be viewed only as complementary.

This is a sober reminder. The onus is on parents to engage their teenage children to talk about sex and not abdicate this role to the school.

Second, find out what schools are actually teaching teens about sex. Is sex before marriage okay? Do boys and girls behave differently? What does respect for others mean? How do you say ‘no’ if in a relationship? These are issues that schools should explore – and the values espoused by the school should be consistent with those of the majority of parents.

Most reasonable parents would want their teens to understand that sex is not the vehicle for lust as seen in movies, but is an expression of love within a loving, committed relationship. Most sensible parents would want schools to promote abstinence until marriage.

Beyond this, however, values will diverge. Do you want your teen to learn about contraception and STDs? Some do, believing this helps teens protect themselves. Others do not. Yet others prefer to educate their teens on such sensitive matters themselves.

One thing that is not useful is to assassinate sex education programmes by label. The label ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ is sometimes taken by advocates of ‘abstinence-only’ sex education as being a short cut for promoting promiscuous behaviour, and encouraging sexual experimentation at a young age with members of the same and opposite sex. No less an organisation than WHO has debunked this view.

It also does a grave disservice to the CSE movement, which at its heart aims to put information on sex, and the consequences of sex, into the hands of teens so that they know how to protect themselves.

A good sexuality education programme for Singapore’s teens – exposed to multiple influences, but mostly residing in fairly conservative homes – would be ‘abstinence-plus’. This would promote a loving family unit as ideal, advocate abstinence before marriage, and discourage early sexual activity.

But unlike head-in-the-sand abstinence-only programmes, abstinence-plus programmes also teach teens about STDs and contraception. After all, teens may not get another chance to learn such things in a guided manner before they venture into the adult world. It makes sense to give students a rounded perspective on sex while they are ‘captive’, so to speak, in the schools.

There is an ongoing effort to collect signatures online to petition MOE to look into Aware’s sexuality education programme. But parents must realise that they also need to do their part. Before pointing fingers at Aware, or MOE, or other groups that conduct CSE, they must talk to their teens about sex themselves.

Parents who hold MOE or other groups responsible for teaching their children morals are simply turning over their parental responsibility to the state.

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