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Why is the content of sexuality curriculum so contested, and why is sexuality education viewed as such a high-risk teaching topic?
Early this year, a new sex education curriculum was introduced with a new sex education booklet for primary students. This new curriculum has elicited both criticisms and praises as the media go into a buzz across the world to report how China has come to age about sexuality. The issue of sex and sexuality education has for long been denied to children in China. The new progressive curriculum for primary schools teaches children from Grade 2 about gender equality, how babies are made, responsible sexual behaviour, bisexuality, and other sexuality issues. In the new book, students are taught to avoid inappropriate sexual advances such as touching from their relatives. They are taught to tell their parents whenever an adult tries to touch them inappropriately. The book also teaches children that love is a good thing, and people can feel sexually attracted to people of the same or the opposite sex. The new curriculum also includes lessons about HIV and how it can be avoided. The book clearly states that condoms are the best preventive measure against HIV/AIDS. The book contains several graphics with the themes of sex and sexuality. Another section of the book talks about bisexuality. Concerning marriage, the students are taught that people may choose to marry or to remain single; and any choice one makes should be respected. They are informed that sexual orientation is a matter of choice, and everyone should be treated equally regardless of their sexuality. Furthermore, the new curriculum suggests that people of different sexualities including gays and bisexuals can live an intimate and fulfilling romantic live.
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This new curriculum has received a great debate on the social media across China. Some people argue that the information and graphics in the text-book are near-pornographic, and they may damage the psychological wellbeing of the children. Others support the new curriculum, welcoming it as a long awaited change in China. China had lagged behind in sex education, and the new curriculum puts them one step towards equality and human rights. The supporters postulate that Chinese children have the right to sex education so that they can understand their sexuality. According to sociology professor Jing Jun of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, most students in China do not receive sex education until the first year of University. This ignorance could be the reason why approximately 115,000 people were infected with HIV in 2015 (Wang and Griffiths, 2017). A significant 14.7% of this number was aged between 15-24 years.
These pros and cons of sex education in China can be examined further using theory and practice in the field of sex and sexuality education. First, Foucault’s concept of the power of sexuality discourse, in which sexuality is seen as the power that individuals may be controlled, normalised and disciplined (Hayden, 2001). Norms and dividing practices may be used to analyse various views about sex education in China. Foucault suggests that normalisation occurs when certain discourses are upheld as the ideal, normal or dominant behaviour in society. He also argues that dividing practices are normalisation methods that define the society’s norms and distinguish between good and bad, or sane and insane. Expert knowledge may be used to regulate what society perceives as the norm (Hayden, 2001). For example, psychiatric knowledge divides between mad and insane while schools divide between the educated and the uneducated. Scientific knowledge also delineates truth from bias.
Cultural ideologies may be challenged by scientific knowledge gained through education. Therefore, sex education may help in distinguishing between what is wrong and what is right in sex and sexuality (Kirby, 2007). The new primary curriculum on sex education contains information about how babies are made and how a man and woman engage in sexual intercourse. This education equips the student with scientific knowledge that challenges cultural biases and traditional understanding of sex and sexuality. As a result, the learners understand about their sexual health, sexology and sexual function.
Through the new sex education curriculum, the students learn to engage in safe sex because they are informed about what is right and what wrong sexual practice is. The new curriculum sex education text book 2 provides knowledge about the use of condoms to prevent AIDs and HIV. If the children gain this knowledge from an early age they learn to engage in sexually responsible behaviours to achieve good sexual health. They learn to differentiate between truth and myths about sex; hence focusing on the right behaviour.
Sexual education for primary schools in China also teaches children about the sexual advances of relatives other sex offenders, leading to an understanding about their sexual health. Sexual abuse of a child might cause psychological problems that will affect their growth and development negatively. The knowledge gained through sex education can enable them to prevent such psychological problems by reporting signs of inappropriate sexual advances that may have led to sexual abuse. For example, the new primary school sex education book has conversations between a child and his niece who tries to take inappropriate sexual actions. The educated child understands that such sexual behaviours are inappropriate, and avoid them early before they cause psychological and sexual health problems.
Foucault also suggests that the domains of sexual normality can be regulated by educating people about their sexual functions. The new Chinese curriculum is an important step towards the understanding of sexual functions. The new book provides lessons about homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality. The Chinese society does not recognise same-sex marriage, but children may ask themselves why a woman may live with another woman as a couple. Sex education sheds some knowledge of truth. The new Chinese curriculum indicates that the different sexual orientations should be respected and treated equally. The cultural traditions of China may discourage sexual relationships between people of the same sex, but the new syllabus dismisses such ideas as cultural biases. Therefore, sex education regulates the normality of different sexual orientations and functions. People can live normal lives, become intimate and have children despite their sexual orientations.
Foucault also suggests that the school may be used as a tool to control sexuality. The national government may control sexuality through institutional technologies such as schools. Traditionally, schools have regulated sexuality by providing single sex schools, separate entrances for the different sexes, separate playing grounds for boys and girls, different sports, heterosexualisation, ‘no touching’ rules, and active male sexual aggression and female passivity assumptions.
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Under the new sex education curriculum, the methods of sexual control exercised by the school are becoming more liberal. The school no longer teaches about male aggression and female passivity. It shows that both males and females can be subjects or objects of sexual aggressions. In any of the two scenarios, the aggressed person should speak up to adult caregivers to seek protection and respect from the aggressor. The school is now becoming an institution where gender equality is encouraged and strengthened. Through the new sex education curriculum of China, the children learn to see themselves as equal members of society regardless of their sexual orientations rather than inferior gender sexual groups. The new system emancipates and enlightens both male and female students to believe in themselves and play a significant role in the day-to-day social and economic activities in society without facing gender discrimination.
Steinhauer (2016) found out that China in the early 20th century controlled marriage and sex in a hierarchical system with male superiority. Parents arranged marriages for their children and having children was a moral obligation. Men were entitled to several privileges and opportunities such as inheritance and right to own land, while women were denied such rights. Women were also expected to be submissive to their husbands, and virginity was highly valued among women. In this regard, sex and sexual pleasure were required for the enjoyment of men and women should make efforts to satisfy their husbands’ needs. Nowadays, some positive changes have been made towards marriage and sexual equality, but the society still experiences strict norms.
Chinese sexual ideologies have evolved over thousands of years due to various social changes. Before the founding of Chinese People’s of China, sex was a taboo. It was only allowed for reproduction during marriage. Therefore, sex and sexuality were understood only on the context of family and marriage. Extra-marital sex was also highly discouraged by Confucian values and philosophy (Yu, 2016). These views were based on the traditional Chinese philosophies. However, contemporary socio-cultural and political development has led to changes in sexual ideologies. For instance, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, and homosexual sex have increased significantly over the past decade in China. Larson (1999) supports this social change by arguing that the past Chinese traditions encouraged sexual repression which should be overcome in order to get into the future. The social change is also conceptualised as a way of expressing sexuality in the context of its past, present and future in order to situate the Chinese culture in a global context.
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The proportion of Chinese population that has engaged in premarital sex has increased from 15% in to 71% over the past thirty years (Yu, 2016). Estimates also show that 4.5% of women and 16.5% of men have engaged in extramarital sex. One of the reasons for the shift in Chinese sexual ideologies is the change from collectivism to individualisation and market-based economies. Westernisation has also influenced people’s attitudes and views about premarital sex and homosexual sex in the Chinese society (Song, 2015). In this regard, sex education should be provided to reflect the changes in sexual ideologies in society.
Due to globalisation and the growth of internet technology, students gain knowledge about sex and sexuality from informal sources which may mislead them. Study by Steinhauer (2016) shows that there is a big division between modern and traditional understanding and approaches to sex. The study shows that traditional Chinese values and norms were responsible for lack of sex education in China. The study concluded that that the Chinese young population should be educated about the consequences of risky sexual behaviour in order to alleviate sex-related problems such as prostitution, abortion, HIV, rape and sexual abuse.
Laumann and Mojola (2007) argue that young people are at a high risk of being infected with HIV due to premarital sex and other sexual behaviours. Furthermore, extramarital sexual behaviours among couples may lead to increased cases of HIV infections among older people. Laumann and Mojola (2007) have also identified commercial sex as a risk factor that may increase the incidences of HIV infections. They suggest that China urgently needs to implement campaigns to encourage the use of condoms during sexual intercourse, especially in commercial sex industry to prevent the spread of the HIV endemic. The new sex education curriculum in China consists of lessons about condoms to teach children how to prevent HIV from their childhood. As noted by Steinhauer (2016), most adults in China did not get sex education; this could explain the rising cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Foucault’s approach of power and knowledge can be used in schools to control the sexual behaviours of students early in order to prevent future problems related to risky sexual behaviours.
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The young population in China today is influenced by western media and technology. They are becoming more open-minded and accepting towards pre-marital sex and different sexual orientations (Song, 2015). However, the Chinese society and its government still remain bound by the traditional values that restrain the youth from expressing their sexual desires and sexual functions. The previous education system lacked critical information about sexual intercourse, sexual abuse, contraception, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. The new sex education is therefore necessary step towards more liberal system of sex education that reflects the changing values and ideas about sex and sexuality.
Instead of allowing children to get misleading information about sexual issues from the internet, it is important to teach them from an early age about the factual and truthful understanding of sex and sexuality. Steinhauer (2016) supports Foucault’s ideology that knowledge and education is a social control mechanism needed to dismiss the traditional values and cultural biases. For example, the new system of education informs the children that what the society tells them about homosexuality and bisexuality is wrong, and everyone has a right to express their sexual desires and enjoy intimacy regardless of their sexual orientations.
When children get information from peers and the internet, they become curious and raise a lot of questions. In our traditional society, we dismiss them and make them understand that they are not entitled to know about sex. When their curiosity grows, they put what they learn from peers and the internet into practice (Zhang et al, 2015). As a result, many young people engage in sexual intercourse and get exposed to risks of early pregnancies sexually transmitted diseases. School sex education may play a normalisation and controlling role by imparting the true knowledge, facts, and truth about sexual issues.
Evans and Tripp (2006) also argue for the use of sex education to prevent sexual risk-taking behaviours among teenagers. Their study supports Foucault’s normalisation theory. They suggest that peer prevention and education can reduce risky sexual behaviours because peer influence may increase the chances of adolescents engaging in such behaviours. Evans and Tripp (2006) argue that peer influence may make sexual intercourse to appear as a normative expectation of teenagers below the age of 16, causing serious long term sexual health consequences. If the children are taught about responsible sexual behaviour from an early age they change their perception of what society considers normative; hence focusing on sexual behaviours that enhance good sexual health.
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Youdell (2005) suggests that the concepts of gender, sex and sexuality are inseparable, and they should be joined together when trying to establish student identity. Indeed, teachers should help children to find out their true identity in terms of sex, sexuality and gender. Youdell opines that the three concepts are constellated to open up possibilities and limits about student identity. This suggestion is based on Buttler’s inseparability of gender and sexuality in the discursive frame of contemporary society (Renold, 2006). Traditionally, sexual orientation and sexual identity are biologically given. Sex education may help students to rediscover their identity in terms of sex, sexuality and gender. For instance, the new Chinese sexual education provides lessons to children about how sexual intercourse occurs; how a baby is conceived; and how intimacy is enjoyed between bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual partners. This knowledge helps them to identify their feelings and their position in society, not only as girls and boys, but also in terms of their sexual orientations, sexual functions and gender roles. The new sex education in China is therefore important for children to discover their identity and roles in society.
Sex education is also necessary to highlight the sexual liberation and freedom of choice in sexual behaviours and partners. According to Larson (1999), sex and sexual desire is a symbol of personal fulfilment which should not be denied to someone in the course of his individual identification. Sex education should enable young people to discover their sexual desires, sex drives and problems in order achieve personal satisfaction and fulfilment in terms of sexuality. In his psychosexual theory, Sigmund Freud suggests that sexual desire is important for human identity and development from infant stage (Larson, 1999). Medical experts have used this theory to retrieve people’s memories of childhood sexual abuse as a cure for psychological problems. According to Sigmund, sexual abuse of children may cause personality problems in adulthood if it is not identified and addressed early. Therefore, sex education helps children to identify such sexual abuses and discuss them with adults to help them overcome their consequences.
Foucault also supports the use of power, knowledge and pleasure to sustain the discursive discourse on human sexuality. In this regard, the discursive explosion and around sex and sexuality is part of the growing interest and coverage of sexual issues on the media including the internet, radio, television and other forms of media. However, political power in the government may restrict such discussions around sex and sexuality through legal regulations (Allen, 2004). In the U.S. and other Western countries, the government has emphasised sexual freedom and the importance of sex education to individual identity. In such capitalistic economies, transnational transactions and modernity have promoted sexual liberation and freedom of choice as portrayed in television films and advertisements. The introduction of education in China is therefore an important step towards sexual freedom and individual identity.
Proponents of sex education argue that sex and sexuality has become an unavoidable part of the modern society. The representation, mediation and expression of sexuality are important in the formation of modern subjectivity; they define and delineate the modernity of individual subjects in society. Larson (1999) argues that the discussions about sexuality have individualized the sexual desires of individual subjects, leading to individual choices in issues related to sex and sexuality. These social changes have changed how people in China understand various issues related to sexuality; including premarital sex, use of contraception, HIV and extramarital changes.
China’s society is now experiencing a democratising process that allows men and women to express their sexual desires freely and become agents of social change (Larson, 1999). Although the traditional society sees sexual behaviours such as premarital sex as anti-authority rebellion, the liberal society sees them as indications of personal pleasure and individual satiation. The social change in society regarding sexuality should be incorporated in schools through sex education curriculum that focuses on individual identity and self-awareness, personal pleasure, sexual health, and responsible sexual behaviour.
Ng and Lau (1990) used the developmental model to show the social changes depicted through Chinese sexual attitudes including sexual liberty, individual identity, and sexual behaviour. Unlike most studies which associate ancient China with sexual repression, this article suggests that primitive China exercised sexual freedom. However, the authors admit to the fact that their legendary sources were merely based on fantasies which may not reflect the true practices and attitudes of primitive societies. They turned to modern Chinese societies to understand the attitudes of the modern society, and found that some modern Chinese have interacted with Christians and acquired their suppressive attitudes towards prostitution, extramarital sex and homosexuality.
The Republic of China exhibits high and rigid sexual morals. Ng and Lau (1990) suggest that women in traditional China expressed their feelings through marriage only. Sex education can be an important way of eliminating these backward attitudes so that men and women can individually identify their feelings and express them freely without encountering suppressive norms that could deny them their sexual freedoms and rights.
A study on sexual behaviour in China carried out by Parish, Laumann and Mojola (2007) also shows that the current sexual behaviours and trends in China are consistent with global trends, and social changes in society have led to increased vulnerability to HIV endemic. This finding is consistent with the findings of Wang and Griffiths (2017). The changes in sexual behaviours of Chinese young men and woman indicate a significant sexual revolution. However, virginity before still remains the norm in China; hence men and women may express their sexual desires through masturbation or pornography (Laumann and Mojola, 2007). This attitude can be improved through sex education. For instance, the new Chinese sex education system teaches children the knowledge about their reproductive system so that they can value their bodies and express their feelings appropriately.
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Laumann and Mojola (2007) have made an argument that may be used by the opponents of sex education to support their views. According to these authors, risky sexual behaviours in China have increased after the recognition of women liberation as opposed to the U.S. in 1960s when women’s emancipation led to reduced premarital sex. In this regard, sex education may be predicted to have little impact on sexual behaviours in China. Furthermore, sex education may expose children to sexual behaviours at an early age, leading to risky sexual behaviours contrary to the intended purpose of the new curriculum.
The unique impact of sex education on sexual behaviours in China is also supported by Li, King and Winter (2009). These authors have found out that Chinese adolescents construct their sexuality in a different socio-economic context. For example, the Puritan Confucian norms and values tend to influence Chinese adolescent sexuality construction. According to Li et al (2009), sexuality education policy in china was changed in 2008 to improve the sexual health of individual members of the society. However, the changes in sexual education policy were not effective because it was mandated through official discourse which emphasised political ideology.
In contemporary Chinese society, political and social ideologies are based on social stability and harmony. The 2008 policy reflected this ideology in totality, leading to a form of sexual citizenship which failed to identify the realities and individual differences of learners’ sexualities and sexual orientations. Instead of encouraging sexual rights, liberty and freedom, the 2008 policy focused on regulating sexual behaviours that were considered to be threats to sexual behaviours. This perspective explains why Laumann and Mojola (2007) found a unique rise in risky behaviours despite the efforts made to reduce them.
The new sex education system seems to address this problem by teaching students about specific strategies that they may use to protect themselves from sexual misbehaviours, and promote sexual health. For instance, the new education provides a graphic demonstration and explanation about how children can stand against sexual abuse by relatives. It also informs the children about healthy sexual behaviours such as the use of contraceptives which will reduce the risks associated with sex and sexuality. As opposed to the 2008 sex education policy which focused on the welfare of the society, the new system addresses specific sexual issues that affect individuals. The success of the U.S. in reducing risky sexual behaviours in 1960s as suggested by Laumann and Mojola (2007) was due to the U.S. culture of individuality and sexual rights and freedoms. The new system teaches girls and boys to resist society’s biased norms that suppress their individual sexual desires; hence there is hope that this time the new sex education curriculum will overcome the challenges of the 2008 policy.
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Evans (1995) suggests that sexual liberation was experienced in China several years before 1990s. This observation is contrary to the views of Li et al (2009) who agree that Chinese sexual education system is still based on traditional political ideology. However, Evans (1995) correctly suggests that a view of sexual liberation is already noted through the media – television, films, magazines, newspapers, billboards, and pamphlets. This media channels carry sexual images and messages which could be viewed in traditional settings with eyes of scrutiny. Such sexual liberations have shown signs of sexual autonomy and independence among women, but Evans (1995) suggests that such independence is relatively marginal. The new sex education system is an important step of constructing sexuality in a more liberal and independent perspective, leading to sexual liberty for women in China.
Hoy (2001) suggests that the major problem for sex education in China is that those who have the greatest need for sex education and sexual health information are sidelined from the sex education system. For a long time, China has been focusing on state education systems, family planning programmes, and marital education programs. Children and teenagers are clearly excluding from this sex education system. Hoy (2001) resonates the findings of other researchers who suggest that the increase in pre-marital sexual relationships in China contradicts the pre-marriage moral behaviour required by the state. Therefore, the government policies have failed to address the individual needs of young people.
In conclusion, the new sex education in Chinese schools is an important way to address the individual sexual needs, desires and attitudes of the people. The system appreciates the change in sexual attitudes and ideologies caused by social change across the world. The sexual education policies initiated in the past have failed because they focused on general welfare of society and political ideologies of the state. Chinese traditional society encouraged abstinence from premarital and extramarital sex, and homosexuality. It suppressed women’s sexual desires by creating and hierarchical male-dominated system. Through democratisation and westernisation, the society’s construction of sexuality has changed. Sexual liberty is seen through the media and mainstream society. Despite government’s efforts to limit problems related to risky sexual behaviours, such risks are increasing. The new sex education system will address this problem because it enables schools to exercise power and control over the students’ sexual behaviour through knowledge and information. Students gain knowledge and information about their individual sexual identity; hence they can adopt appropriate sexual behaviours to minimise risks of sexual behaviours such as abortion, premarital sex, early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, and sexual abuse.
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