Alison’s class held their own version of American Idol the other day. Among the songs presented was Bruno Mars’ The Lazy Song, which contains choice lyrics such as
“I’m gonna kick my feet up then stare at the fan
Turn the TV on, throw my hand in my pants”
I asked Alison if she understood the term “throw my hand in my pants”.
“Yes, it means masturbation.”
“Do you know what masturbation is?”
“Yes. I read about it in the book.”
“The book” is a tome entitled Zits, Glitz and Body Bits which I picked up at a bookshop for just $8. I must admit that I didn’t really scrutinise the book closely when I bought it. I just flipped the pages, stopped and read a few, and deemed it suitable for Alison, who’s 10 going on 21. She was really excited when I handed it to her, and in the weeks since she first got her hands on it, has read it cover to cover and keeps referring to it whenever she wants to remind herself about certain topics.
As a result of reading this book, my daughter now knows why and how her body is changing as well as the mechanics of sex and the consequences thereafter, which include unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This newly acquired knowledge supplements what I have already told her before about sexuality, in much greater detail. I didn’t discuss abortion with Alison, but the book covers the topic, so she came to me with questions after she read it. I know not every 10-year old is mature enough to have the level of knowledge that Alison has about this subject, so I’m definitely not advocating that all 10-year olds be told how abortions are performed. Every child is different. Mine just so happens to be ready to know what there is to know.
Which brings me to this whole fiasco about the Ministry of Education deciding what students should be taught in sex ed, based on “mainstream values”. To my mind, the sex ed curriculum should have less to do with values, and more to do with public health interest. Arguably, it is impossible to divorce public health from values. However, “mainstream values” is a subjective concept – who decides what these values are? Did the Ministry conduct a population-level survey to determine what Singaporeans consider as mainstream values? Simply defining it in heteronormative and conservative terms does an injustice to children and adolescents, regardless of their sexual orientation.
The fact is: young people will have sex. Some of them will be underage. They will have sex with multiple partners. They will have sex without protection. Some of them will get pregnant. Some of them will contract diseases. All of these young people who choose to have sex will do it despite their teachers preaching abstinence before marriage. According to 2010 statistics from Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, 46.1 per cent of youths aged between 16 and 20 are sexually active. That means nearly half of students in a class will not be heeding the instruction not to have sex before marriage. This calls into question the efficacy of the programme.
At the same time, the number of young people contracting sexually transmitted infections is on the rise. In 2010, then-Minister for Health Khaw Boon Wan stated that the rate of STI notification more than doubled for youths in their teens – from 61 per 100,000 population in 2000 to 133 in 2008. In a report published November 2011, the Ministry of Health reported that the rate for youths aged 15 to 19 years was 193 per 100,000 population. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from the numbers.
Clearly, young people don’t need to be told not to have sex; they need to be told how to have sex responsibly. This is where public health interest comes into play.
I will not tell Alison and Zoe not to have sex before marriage. I will tell them their rights and responsibilities under the law, how to decide whether or not to have sex, and how to protect themselves if they do decide to have sex. While we are a Christian family, I will not force conservative religious beliefs about premarital sex down their throats. If they are grown enough to decide to have sex, they are grown enough to be accountable to themselves, society and God.
So where does that leave us? I don’t think it’s necessary for the girls to sit through sex ed class to be taught nothing useful, so maybe I’ll opt out of the programme. After all, Alison already knows all she needs to know about sex. She can do more productive things during that time like catch up with homework or practise math sums. Or maybe I should let her attend the sessions, so she can make discussions more productive with her knowledge. But that might backfire – her teacher might label her a troublemaker or smart aleck, and that wouldn’t be good for her.
Either way, I don’t need the Ministry of Education to teach my children about sex, especially when they are not going to do it comprehensively, holistically and objectively. Do you?