by Desiree Lim
Let’s admit it: when we were kids, we relished hearing about sex. (I assume, hopefully, that I am not the only one.) Right now I have the luxury of extended conversations with unflinching gynaecological content. But things weren’t so easy back then. My parents, bless them, gave me the obligatory this-is-how-babies-are-made talk when I was seven, which I listened to with scientific solemnity, but without any prurient interest. Beyond that, the topic was never broached. Unable to stifle my growing curiosity, I turned to Channel 8.
For those not in the know, Channel 8 is a popular Chinese-language television channel in Singapore. Dismally-acted dramas (for the most part) are shown at regular intervals. Even though I had a glaringly inadequate grasp of Mandarin, I managed to watch them compulsively by reading the subtitles, which my mother threatened to tape over on a number of occasions, in a desperate bid to make me improve. While you could expect to see tearful family reunions and stoic police officers chasing masked robbers, there were also some carefully regulated sexual scenes. The idea was to balance viewers’ titillation with preventing outrage. They could generally be divided into:
1. Heterosexual couple consummate their marriage.
2. Heterosexual couple consummate their illicit affair; the woman tends to wind up pregnant.
3. Sweet young girl gets raped.
These, clearly, did not make for very effective sex education. For one, the scenes usually cut off before the actual deed occurred. In the first two, the couple would roll around for a while in dim lighting – after which the camera would cut to a non-erotic daytime setting, like an HDB void deck. There wasn’t even any artfully filmed gyration. I remember being shocked when I realised programmes in the UK were allowed to show breasts. Bare breasts. The point is, anyway, that if children grew up on a singular diet of Channel 8 dramas, which I sincerely hope they do not (I managed to squeeze in some reading on the side), they would have very little idea of what sex truly constitutes, aside from the rolling.
Hang on a second. What, you might ask, does sex education have to do with feminism? Let’s first think about sexual equality, in two senses of the phrase: equality between the sexes, in sexual matters. Societies continue to be informed by sexist attitudes that recognise men as active agents, while only allowing women the role of passive conquest, with no appetite of their own. This misconception is inextricably connected to the patriarchal institution of virginity. The preservation of virginity till marriage – implying that a woman’s sexuality must belong to her husband, and her husband alone – continues to be viewed by many as integral to a woman’s good character. According to the age-old double standard, unmarried men with active sex lives are congratulated for their prowess; a woman who does the same is ‘cheap’, ‘slutty’, and ought not to be respected.
In short, sex – or more specifically, what we are told about sex – can play a tremendous role in empowering or disenfranchising women. Someone who is informed repeatedly, throughout her childhood, that it is disgraceful to have sex before marriage, and sex is nothing but duty to one’s husband, runs great risk of internalising her subjection to men. I believe it is crucial that sex education seeks to correct this form of inequality.
What can we make of dominant sexual attitudes in Singapore? A statement issued by Dr Ng Eng Hen, about the focus of Singaporean sex education syllabus, is extremely telling:
When we started, the key message was abstinence, reflecting the conservative social tone of our Asian society where liberal values on sex are not espoused. This is not a negative facet of our society. It is not prudish, regressive or naive. Even some who have lived in more liberal societies tell us that they like this atmosphere for their children. But it was clear that abstinence as the only focus was not an effective strategy in reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and STIs. In 2007, messages were added – beyond knowing how to say no, students were also taught the repercussions of unwanted pregnancies and STIs/HIV and how to prevent them. (source: http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2009/05/21/remarks-by-dr-ng-eng-hen-on-se.php)
Ng points out that, amongst many parents, “liberal values” on sex are not espoused. However, framing the tension as “liberal” versus “conservative” is highly deceptive. It is not at all contradictory to believe in monogamy – an ideal that many people share – and simultaneously advocate the importance of learning about sexual health and contraception. A more accurate description of our society is one that often refuses to be upfront and objective about sexual matters, and this refusal is justified by the alarmist spectre of “Western” decadence. The relativism espoused by Ng effectively renders any relevant criticism culturally insensitive. You are not mistaken in noticing that contraception was only officially introduced into the syllabus from 2007 onwards, because it did not befit an “Asian society” – until it became empirically evident that an update was imperative. From now, we can be guaranteed that teenagers are shown lurid images of rampant sores and growths that will haunt them in their sleep.
This amendment, while important, fails to counteract an equally pressing issue. In my experience, generations of females continue to be told that their virginity must be preserved if they want to find a good husband; that men only want to use them for sex, and they will be unceremoniously tossed aside the instant they give in; that displaying or responding to sexual desire is sickening and dirty, and makes them detestable sluts; that sexually driven behaviour will be punished by rape. The sexuality of Singaporean girls continues to be policed and demonised, in a manner that denies them equal status to males. We should be concerned that sex education does nothing to change these mindsets. It does not even acknowledge them as problematic, but accepts them as a cultural backdrop and seeks to placate, rather than challenge. One clear indicator is the right of parents to opt their children out of sex education programmes:
MOE recognises that issues of sexuality involve value judgments and that parents are ultimately responsible for the health and moral values of their children. Thus, parents can opt their children out of a school’s sexuality education programme or individual topics, talks and workshops. (source: http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/)
MOE’s justification is that parents “are ultimately responsible for the health and moral values of their children.” In other words, parents have the right to endanger their children’s sexual health in the name of morality. What kind of parent denies their child sex education? One who firmly believes that sex is bad, and by extension, that learning about sex is, too. Aside from the unhealthy views that are probably being inherited as we speak, is it acceptable that, on top of these, parents should be supported in withholding knowledge about STDs and contraception from their children?
Many schools are also complicit in several ways. Girls’ schools, have a notorious propensity for showing adamantly pro-life videos, often in poor taste. (The Silent Scream, anyone?) Teachers make remarks like, “This is what happens to girls who have sex.” These pro-life sentiments might seem puzzling at first, because they are promulgated by secular schools, even though they are usually driven by religious motivations. The reason? To frighten their students off sex. If it works, we’re beginning to see a worrying combination of factors at play, designed to convince young girls that sex is invariably shameful and dangerous. Not forgetting pregnant teenagers who, by virtue of its purported cruelty, no longer view abortion as a valid option that they are perfectly entitled to. By the way, the MOE’s long-overdue contraception concession doesn’t mean abstinence is any less emphasised. A top junior college invited in a speaker who didn’t just stop at graphically describing gang rape cases with disturbing relish:
[He] demonstrated the world’s most disgusting sex analogy, where he slapped a slice of bread with peanut butter on it onto another with jam, peeled them apart, showed us the bread and announced, ‘This is what happens when you have sex. It’s irreversible!’ And then he made us all sign abstinence cards.
– Camilla Chen, an ex-student
Clearly, speakers are allowed to directly associate sex with gang rape, which we all know not to be a corollary. This strikes me as horrific. If they are truly concerned about rape, instead of appropriating trauma for the use of cheap scaremongering tactics, why isn’t the notion of consent duly expounded upon? They are also allowed to extol the virtues of virginity, and mass-coerce students into signing abstinence cards through stirring up peer pressure. I think we can all agree that is deeply undesirable for the private choice to engage in or refrain from sex, to be forcibly put up for public scrutiny and actively subsumed into a mass decision. While students are told not to give in to peer pressure to have sex, no one appears to notice the irony in peer-pressuring them not to.
Of course, I do not claim that MOE is behind these speakers. To my knowledge, rape stories are not part of the syllabus. Nonetheless, it has exercised the power to regulate external organisations that are perceived as rebelling against its core values. I believe it also needs to ensure students are not fed information that compounds existing skewed perspectives, or forced into making personal decisions on the spot. My more negative take is that the MOE will not venture to do this, at least until the distant future – precisely because these speakers preach what they feel is good for us to believe. On the other hand, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) was swiftly dropped as a sex education vendor. What, exactly, was AWARE’s crime?
The section in question defines terms such as “anal sex”, “virginity”, “teenage pregnancy” and “homosexual”. As part of the workshop exercise, students are asked to associate these terms according to three categories: Positive, neutral and negative. (source: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/426252/1/.html)
A brief glance at MOE’s website helps explains why this section was so controversial:
MOE’s sexuality education aims to help students make responsible choices on matters involving sexuality. It is taught in the context of values which our mainstream society believes – the importance of the heterosexual married family as the basic unit of society, and respect for the values and beliefs of the different ethnic and religious communities on sexuality issues. (source: http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/)
For one obvious reason, MOE’s sex education programme strikes me as no more informative than Singaporean television. It does not merely cite the family as the “basic unit of society”, but the “heterosexual married family”, mirroring the failure to recognise homosexual relationships in mainstream media. Explicitly stating ‘heterosexual’ places it in immediate opposition to its antonym – homosexual. Our idea of sex education is conditioning youths to believe that heterosexuality – make that married heterosexuality – is not only normal, but crucial for Singapore to function. People who fail to accomplish either, it is suggested, are a destructive, undermining force.
Dr. Thio Su Mien, a former law professor, had an interesting statement to make:
“The suggestion is that in this programme, young girls from 12 to 18 are taught that it’s okay to experiment with each other. And this is something which concerns parents in Singapore. Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?” (source: http://singaporemind.blogspot.com/2009/04/moe-replies-on-aware-sex-education.html)
Thio’s comment is recalls a fallacy I discussed earlier: that educating people about sex as something neutral, perhaps even positive – will encourage teenagers to copulate like single-minded rabbits. Unsafely, of course. Similarly, it buys into the, well, incredibly stupid idea that educating people about sexual orientation will inevitably turn them homosexual. More importantly, it is yet another manifestation of how female sexualities are regulated, revealing the intersection between feminism and gay activism. Thio believes that they must be compulsorily heterosexual. Adolescent girls are simply not allowed to have desire for one another: instead, they must content themselves with a worldview that insists they reserve themselves for their husbands, lest they get pregnant, catch STDs, or threaten the foundations of heterosexual society.
Overall I have painted an unhappy picture of many young people, particularly girls, not only falling prey to sexual mindsets that are not only conservative (conservative is too anodyne a word), but exclusionary, obfuscatory and unswervingly patriarchal in origin. This state of affairs remains largely uncontested and explained away by cultural relativism, which too often gets used as an excuse for injustice. I’m led to conclude that the MOE’s education package, through its uncompromising heterosexism, tendency to focus narrowly on discouraging sex and failure to regulate grotesquely biased information from external organisations, neglects to address this.
An adequate syllabus must, at the very least, seek to redress unhealthy sexual attitudes, instead of bolstering these in its desperate bid to avoid pregnancy and STDs. Sex must be taught from more than one angle: sexual health transcends material protection, and can only be genuinely achieved through the understanding and acceptance of one’s sexuality in an environment safe from others’ imposition, and if we so desire, developing our capacity to form intimate relationships that are rewarding and dignified, as opposed to inherently damaging. Otherwise, young girls risk being acculturated to a very damaging aspect of patriarchal thought that denies them agency and equality. We are hardly better off than if we were solely exposed to Channel 8, where sex only takes place between heterosexual married couples, pregnancy occurs every time, and rape only happens to those considered pure and innocent.
Desirée Lim is a philosophy postgraduate student who shuttles between Singapore and London.