We have a keyring in the shape of a sperm at home.
My 14-year-old son came back from school a few weeks ago after a day’s sex education and drug education. The sperm keyring was a freebie to all children.
During the sex education, all boys and girls (aged 13 and 14) were each given a real condom in a sealed package. They learnt together in the same class, learnt how to tear off the sealed package gently, hold the condom the right way, and put it on a realistic erect penis model.
The teenagers also learnt about STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases). They were shown graphic images of the effects of the diseases such as chlamydia. Teenagers were also told to make choices in life about whether they think they are ready for sex, and try not to succumb to peer pressure.
The UK has the highest teenage birth and abortion rates in Western Europe, though teenage pregnancy rates have fallen to 40-year low last year, according to the BBC News.
My teenage son’s sex education in England
The age of consent is 16 in the UK. The government wants to equip children with good knowledge of sexual health.
For example, pupils were told where they could get free condoms. And even if they have unprotected sex, it may not be the end of the world, as girls could still receive emergency contraception (morning after pill) for free.
The whole school day was dedicated to PDL (Personal Development Learning). In the drug session, children learnt about different types of drugs, their classifications, and which drug may get them into trouble with the police.
I found sex education in this country fascinating. The morning before attending the session, my son told me that “I’ve already known it all. I know how babies are made.” He told me he had “learnt everything in Yr 6″ in the primary school, when teachers showed them some videos.
My sex education (sort of)
Now travelling back in time to the humidity of Malaysia 35 years ago. Within the first two weeks in a Chinese secondary school, we girls were called into a large hall with poor ventilation, while boys had their session separately.
I remember the small, formidable teacher standing on the stage spoke with a squeaky voice. The first question she asked hundreds of 12-year-old girls was, “Whose period has arrived?” Quite a lot of girls put their hands up, though you know some girls lied. No, their periods hadn’t arrived, but the girls put their hands up, just to pretend they were more superior.
After a quick head count, Mrs Squeaky Voice instructed the girls that we were not to use tampons should our periods came. To my male readers who haven’t walked away yet, a tampon is a soft absorbent material, which is inserted into the vagina during menstruation. Tampons might have been popular in the west then, but I remember tampons were new, trendy, and even naughty in our conservative little town in the early 1980s. Only certain types of women would use a tampon. In those days, there was a saying that proper (decent) women would only use sanitary towels.
More importantly, Mrs Squeaky Voice said tampons might cause damage to the hymen – a warning to girls as it was important in our culture that we kept our virginity.
A woman’s virginity is highly valued in many traditional societies, especially in Asia. Hymen is a thin membrane that surrounds the opening to the vagina. Traditionally women have to prove their virginity on the night of marriage. If a husband doesn’t see blood on the sheet on the honeymoon night, it could mean that the woman is not perfect (or promiscuous before marriage). The consequences of her impurity and humiliation to the woman were unimaginable.
I read that thousands of Chinese women each year pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding, just so that their husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night.
You can find out more details in this report on Business Insider: China’s Sexual Revolution Has Reached The Point Of No Return. BBC also carried a similar story on the virginity industry in another culture.
That afternoon in the airless hall and my introduction to period, curse of tampons, and knowledge of the importance of virginity as a 12-year-old pretty much summarised my ‘sex education’.
Cultural diversity and openness in the UK
In addition to a sperm-shaped keyring, my son also came home from his sex education a booklet called Is everybody doing it? (pdf file) – Your guide to contraception, issued by the sexual healthy charity FPA.
The world that my son lives in, and the open culture that he is immersed in are completely different from my own experience when I was young in a reserved, conservative society. In my son’s sex education, the focuses were about respect, making choices, and preventing sexual diseases.
The teenagers learn about heterosexual and homosexual relationships and accept other people’s choices. It’s important and it comes more naturally for my son’s generation to accept other people’s different sexual preferences, as the UK is a much more diverse society today. The youngsters also know that there are always help available for them.
A lot of people seem to think that young people today have an easy life in the comfort of the digital age. However young people today are also growing up too fast and they are overwhelmed with information. They are faced with many choices and pressures that I might not have had to face 35 years ago.
As a mother, I often see the clash between my son’s world and my world, and have to learn to adapt and make changes in my own thinking often. I’m glad that the school prepares him and his peers to be open, learn about sex and drug, and make them aware that they are responsible for the choices that they make in their life.