Students, educators and some doctors are questioning the way in which sex education is being taught in Chinese schools. Although sex education as a subject was incorporated into the curriculum of several Chinese schools almost 10 years ago, there are many who think the classes are boring, inadequate, and don't appear to help teenagers in their understanding of sexual and reproductive health.
The issue of schools not being able to impart quality sex education gained momentum when two teenage boys in Beijing - Chen Xi and Lin Weifeng - conducted a survey on 3,000 high school students in 2002.
None of the 3,000 students in Beijing and other parts of the country were satisfied with sex education at school, the boys concluded in their research paper based on the survey, which won the first prize in Beijing's Youth Science Innovation contest in 2003. "Nearly 70 per cent of them are not against pre-marital sexual experience, contrary to what is taught in class," the two said in the paper.
Weifeng, 17, is from Beijing Huiwen High School and finds the sex education classes boring. "The teacher just briefs us about the different sexual organs of our body and then warns us not to engage in any love affair at such a young age."
Xi, a 12th grader at the high school affiliated to the Renmin University of China, says he and Weifeng conducted the survey "in order to show the educators what we students really need from sex education".
Song Yuzhen of the Beijing Education Commission observes that academic scores rather than puberty lessons, determine the students' chances to enter universities, and therefore, sex education classes often get neglected. "When the subject is taught, it is normally confined to the introduction of the human body and sexual identity."
In Beijing, 200 out of 567 high schools teach the course to students. Students attend four classes on sex education every semester. Their textbook, 'Guidelines on Sexual Health', talks about safe sex, contraception and how to confront sexual harassment.
Although the idea of imparting sex education in schools was encouraged by none other than the late Premier Zhou Enlai in 1963, it remained a taboo subject for almost 30 years and was officially incorporated in the Chinese school curriculum only in the early 1990s. The Education Ministry defined sex education as education on sexual physiology, sexual psychology and sexual morality.
A high school teacher in Beijing admits that most teachers don't know or don't care about what students want. Many still feel the subject is "too sensitive to handle," she says.
Zhang Yinmo, an editor with a youth magazine, notes: "In the schools, sex education is so much about promoting the idea of virginity rather than ensuring safety. It cares too much about curbing the spread of sexually transmitted infections and too little about how to develop the youngsters' understanding of sex and sexuality."
Yinmo has co-authored a book entitled 'Roses Concealed in a School Bag', recording tales of 13 sexually active high school students. All of them found the sex education classes in school too boring to attend. They missed out on what their teachers said about safe sex and none of them took any protective measures when they had sex. The book is popular among many teenagers and their parents.
Studies indicate that Chinese boys and girls reach puberty at 13 years and 12 years respectively. "How can they be happy with their life in the future if they are empty-minded about sex?" asks Sun Bin, a teacher at Beijing's Luxun High School.
Dr Deng Jun of Beijing No. 2 Hospital has also observed the failure of sex education at school. She says, this year (2004), 50 of the 90 young women (aged 17 to 24) who came to the hospital clinic were pregnant because they weren't aware of any safety measures. Deng recalls that a boy once asked her how big a condom he should buy. He thought it had something to with the size of his foot!
According to the Xinhua news agency, of the 1,493,000 abortions in China in 2002, about 400,000 involved teenage girls.
Despite their criticism about the way sex education is taught at school, most respondents to Weifeng and Xi's survey considered schools as the desirable channel to gain sexual knowledge. Other surveys indicate that only seven per cent of the parents are able to give proper sex education to their children.
Cao Yuwen, Director of the Moral Education Department of the high school affiliated with Beijing's Institute of Technology, sees room for improvement: "The course has been focusing on how the body's sexual system functions and on sexual development and reproduction. Sexual morality and psychology have been ignored." She feels kids "need to have information about the physical and emotional changes associated with puberty and sexual reproduction, including fertilization, conception, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS."
"Sex education, besides imparting knowledge about the human body, must shoulder the responsibility of cultivating healthy personalities," says Bu Wei, researcher on communication with children at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Moreover, she points out that sex education is not about setting prohibitions on teenagers. What educators, parents and adults can do is to provide students with the right knowledge to make the right choice.