May 3, 2009
Let's talk about sex
Sex education, that is. How I wish I had received some of that when I was a teen
By Sumiko Tan
All that news about sex education has got me wishing how I had a bit of that when I was young.
Whatever the pros and cons of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education programme conducted by women's group Aware - a topic that has generated such fierce debate - I think students today are lucky to be taught something, anything.
I can't recall receiving any form of sex education either formally or informally when I was a teen.
I would have benefited from it, given how my teenage years were hormonally charged and spent hurtling from one crush to another.
When I left secondary school, I sure knew a lot about the reproductive parts of flowering plants (remember those diagrams we had to draw of petals, stamens and pistils?), but barely anything about human reproduction.
I had little idea of male and female anatomical parts, or of how babies are made, or how you can avoid making them, or of diseases you can catch or the pitfalls in boy-girl relationships.
Those were the days before the Internet and such information wasn't easily available.
There was silence at home too.
In a way my family was more liberal than others. We bathed as a family when my siblings and I were younger and this was considered normal (maybe it's because my mother's Japanese).
And because there were three females at home, my mother, sister and I would compare body parts. We talked openly and endlessly about our body shapes and weight.
But the act of sex itself and of relationships weren't discussed.
What adults did behind closed doors remained a mystery, and neither did my parents broach relationship issues like what happens when you date, whether it's okay to kiss and cuddle and so on, and how to deal with relationship break-ups.
My father was very strict about who I went out with, and because of that I kept most of my dates a secret from him.
The only person who'd bring up anything close to sex education was my sister.
Even then she wasn't explicit because she, too, was in the dark. But she'd remind me to 'be careful' with guys, to 'save yourself for marriage' and 'don't do anything you'll regret'.
It would have been good if someone either in school or at home had given me the facts of life and discussed issues like pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and how to cope with relationship woes.
It would have made me surer of what I could and should do - or couldn't and shouldn't - when I started dating.
Perhaps today's generation of parents are more enlightened and open about talking about sex with their kids. Certainly living in an HIV/Aids era does make it more crucial. But I doubt it.
If you go by my married friends, most still feel uncomfortable about raising the subject and would prefer to leave it to schools and teachers or groups such as Aware to fill their kids in.
The problem is, values and views differ so drastically among parents that it is near impossible to find a sex education programme that will not make some parent blanch.
Do you, for example, teach only abstinence or safe sex?
Should you assume that sexual behaviour among teens is a given and that it is hence crucial to give them information about the risks and how to minimise them?
Should sex education impart a standard of moral behaviour?
Will values-free knowledge of sexual practices necessarily lead to harmful behaviour?
Should lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lifestyles even be mentioned as part of sex education? At what age? Does it encourage homosexual behaviour? And if so, is there anything wrong with that?
I am not a parent and so I don't have much to go by, but I should think that schools can, and should, play only a small role in how a child develops sexually.
Surely it is parents who have - and should have - ultimate control. After all, why have kids unless you are sure you can teach, guide and nurture them?
And given that a person's sexuality is such a major aspect of his life, isn't it the responsibility of parents to address these issues at home, and to impart and impose their values on their children?
No school or teacher or group should be expected to carry that burden.
Then, when the children are adults, they have to make up their own minds. If you have faithfully done your part, chances are they will not depart from what they had been taught.
I know my sister has given a lot of thought to the sex education of her two children.
My niece is 11 going on 12 and at that awkward age when her body is shedding its girlish contours but her preoccupations remain those of a child.
She still plays with dolls and trains and loves re-enacting stories from books with her best female friends.
She and her female cousin have set up a 'store' in an unused cabin in their grandparents' garden to sell stuff they make.
She has several friends who are boys and they talk about snakes and lizards and she plays soccer with them.
Boys are in the picture only in so far as they are like her little brother Josh, whom she plays with much of the time.
She does like a certain boy called Eric - he's 10 - a lot, but my sister says it's not a crush. She's happy to see him and they will talk about reptiles and fighter planes but she does not moon over him. To her, Eric is a bigger version of Josh.
We're glad that she's still so innocent, but it's only a matter of time before the boy-crazy hormones kick in. They always do. And then my sister will probably have her hands full.
Although I'm just an aunt, I feel skittish about how my niece is going to handle her sexuality once she becomes a teenager.
Will she end up one of those girls who throw themselves at boys and do crazy, wild things? Or will she be nerdy and shy, a wallflower lacking in confidence when in the company of boys? Perhaps she'd be somewhere in between.
And there's Josh. He's only six now and easy-going and friendly, but what sort of teenager will he be? Girl-mad with a string of girlfriends? The love 'em and leave 'em sort? Or someone who's gentlemanly?
A friend was telling me about how his nephew has been feeling dashed because a girl he likes had rejected him. He has now decided to act 'cool' with other girls. He's all of 12.
Time will tell when it comes to my niece and nephew.
I can only hope that they turn out well-adjusted and okay - sexually and otherwise.