The Ministry of Education of Singapore is going to revise its Sexuality Education Programme (SEP) which will emphasise sexual abstinence over contraception. According to The New Paper, this programme, the strangely-titled ‘Breaking Down Bridges’ will be taught to Secondary 3, first-year junior college and centralised institute students.
I was rather surprised to read this news. From my own experience of sex education while in high school, I thought that there was too much emphasis on sexual abstinence. How can there be any more emphasis, short of insisting that all teenage girls take the veil?
The Yahoo! article only quotes from Catholic parents with children in Catholic schools, which is strange. Did the Ministry of Education consult with other parents and teachers and experts before they decided to change the programme? It would certainly be worrying if the SEP was changed for all Singaporean schools just because Catholic parents disapprove of contraception. Isn’t our education system supposed to be secular?
That aside, the very idea of emphasising abstinence over contraception is problematic.
Firstly, what is the definition of “emphasise” that is being used here? As I already said, my experience of sex education in school did not at any point give me the impression that contraception was being emphasised at all – unless the term “emphasised” is supposed to be read as “mentioned”. If that’s the case, are we to assume that decreasing “emphasis” on contraception would involve decreasing the amount of time educating students about it?
I would really like to see what this ‘Breaking Down Bridges’ programme is like, and just how it emphasises abstinence.
Emphasising abstinence isn’t necessarily a great idea. Although it is true that it is the most effective way of avoiding teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases/STIs (the same way never leaving your house is the most effective way of avoiding getting hit by a bus), the idea that teenagers/young adults are all not going to have sex is just highly impractical.
It’s dangerous, too, because if you emphasise abstinence too much and shy away from talking about safe sex and contraception, you’re just going to get generations of confused teenagers who are probably going to get up to some hanky-panky anyway, but very little idea of how to protect themselves.
That said, I have no problem with teaching abstinence as a possible path to take. It’s a personal choice, and one that everyone should respect instead of mock. But what I have a problem with is the singling out of one path above others as more desirable, because then we’re no longer on neutral, comprehensive educational grounds, but subjective moral arguments pushed onto people who might not hold to the same value systems. That’s when we turn it from a personal choice into a “behave like this or society will shun you” scenario.
Very often the teaching (or “preaching”) of abstinence becomes tied up in highly subjective moral values (and, as we can see from the quotes from Catholic parents, religious values too) and judgement. We might end up finding that teenagers will end up abstaining from sex not because of the potential pregnancy/health concerns, but because they have been taught that it is a shameful thing, because teenage girls who get found out for having sex will be judged as “sluts”, because sex is big and scary and bad, very bad.
“What’s wrong with that?” one might ask. “If it keeps our kids safe from teenage pregnancy and STIs, scaring them is fine with me.”
Okay. But what happens when they grow up, and still carry that fear and stigma with them? Then you have a whole generation of sex-negative people, who not only judge other people for their sexual choices (even if these choices are consensual), but also feel ashamed of their own bodies and urges. Is this really healthy?
When we teach sex education in schools, we’re not just talking about STIs and unwanted pregnancies. We’re talking about how we view our bodies, how we view sex and how we judge each other’s attitudes on the subject. We’re talking about relationships and how we deal with intimacy and being comfortable with another human being, and being able to express our desires/discomfort because we aren’t afraid of taking ownership of our own bodies. It is about so much more than teenagers wanting to go all the way.
We need to stop getting into a moral panic about our kids knowing about sex. Providing a comprehensive sex education doesn’t promote pre-marital sex, or encourage more teenagers to have sex. Learning about sex and intimacy in school doesn’t make one into a sex maniac. After all, I learnt about science in school and I didn’t become a scientist.
- Picture taken from: Sxc.hu