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Are Singapore’s Teachers Actually Prepared to Teach Our Students Sex-ed?

Are Singapore’s Teachers Actually Prepared to Teach Our Students Sex-ed?

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Top image: Kevia Tan / Unsplash

Are schools doing enough for sex-ed?

Having been a teacher for 25 years, my motto has always been: remove cringe and demystify. I begin sex-ed classes by getting everyone to say ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ aloud 3 times without giggling. 

This way, I can proceed with the subject matter, well, matter-of-factly.

Reading the news of late, namely cases of uni students with sexual assault or peeping tom charges, I do wonder if there are many who simply lack the guidance with regards to consent, so that even universities have to create a module on this. My central concern is that in our country, porn has definitely created too much objectification and unrealistic expectations, shaping impressionable minds who become fixated on sexual gratification while not respecting boundaries.

That said, I also wonder if our education system has come short of educating our kids.

Remember this? (This was once circulated as material for Focus on the Family's sex education programme)
The syllabus attempts to be extensive, covering anything from biology to consent. It begins with teachers attending hours of pre-classroom seminars ranging from theory to cringe-worthy role-playing. Yes, we have to act out possible scenarios of our 17-year-old charges in sexual contexts ranging from casual encounters to relationship transitions. E.g Boy A asks Girl A if they can have sex after their third date, or what the appropriate age of consent is if you meet a date on Tinder. 

Imagine this: your seemingly prudish teachers turning themselves into teenagers negotiating sexual tension. It isn’t any wonder that it’s hard to take these sessions seriously, at least going by the uncomfortable chuckles all around.

Most teachers are pretty much stoic when delivering sex-ed lessons because they know they are mandated by MOE. Hence they don’t question these lessons’ validity or relevance. There are, however a few younger teachers who have shared with me their reservations about how lessons are, conducted so we modify them according to class culture, or contextualise them with modern references. For instance, how Instagram seems to encourage latent sexualisation of teenagers, or Tinder becoming rampant amongst teens.

And then there’s the application. We go into class announcing that we will spend the next 3 lessons of civics on sex-ed, to the mixed response of hormornally-charged whooping boys to the squeamishly protesting girls, and the third group that would rather just complete their math tutorials.

More often than not, this inevitably ends up turning into  a case of expectations versus reality. Rather than quizzing their teachers about techniques or personal sordid experiences, the syllabus presents students with informative sources for HIV/STD treatment, and a panel of sexperts from assorted ministries pre-approved by MOE to preach about the ramifications of pre-marital sex. 

Such a panel could consist of medical representatives from MOH, a married teacher with kids, a lawyer, and a school counsellor. The shared message: contraception use without actually showing how or where. Often, is is clinical and somewhat moralising. Included are insipid videos produced by private organisations about youth who end up with unwanted pregnancies or diseases that somehow draw unintended humour. 

In all, the message is clearly abstinence. It isn’t surprising that after we get them to fill in feedback forms, some of my students say they were bored, disappointed, or preferred to Google or Youtube their queries.

Or this?
I once asked my form students to blink at me as I looked around the class to survey who had had sex before. Some girls placed their fingers around their eyes to pry them open, adding that they had enough on their plate to worry about—like their A levels, to start—than to have sex. In fact, when I tried to explain certain curious questions about what constituted sex (like hand-jobs or fellatio), my young colleagues sitting at the back observing said all they saw were the backs of some kids in mortified jolts. In separate sessions by gender, the boys shared more adventurous questions and encounters, including boys I didn’t teach because, to quote, “(Their) teacher looks like a 50-year-old virgin”. One even mentioned how he met an older woman online who had propositioned him. 

In contrast, the girls would say that sex is “gross”, and that boys who watch porn are “er xing” (disgusting). It didn’t help that some boys proclaimed in class that they’d rather date their right hands. I just chalk it up to boys being culturally conditioned to sexualise their experiences at a much earlier age. 

So it seems there is not only a gender divide on sexual education, but also a cultural one. The more Asian-conservative or religiously-grounded would often shun having such conversations, let alone experience sex. Religions like Islam or Christianity clearly restrict pre-marital sex, so it seems irrelevant to be discussed among teens who subscribe to their religious principles. Usually, it’s like, ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we are about to be married’. As for students from more Asian-conservative families, they don’t discuss the taboo subjects of sex or related topics at home, so they’d rather ask their peers or go furtively online, often leading to porn sites.

Speaking of difficult conversations, the school sex-ed syllabus excludes possible questions about the LGBTQ. It assumes that teens do not have sexual confusions at that age, though my exchanges with these kids have revealed the contrary. For every batch of students in a 2-year cycle, there would be 1-2 asking or sharing about their inner struggles with their sexuality, either with disapproval or shame, so much that I have become the mothership where gay angst goes to unload, even for students I don’t teach.

They tell me it’s because I seem “chill” and don’t judge. I can’t help but feel sorry for these kids, carrying this burden of their secret shame while dealing with their school syllabus’s implication that they simply don’t exist.

I recall how during a lecture session on sex-ed with a panel, a question on homosexuality was written on paper during the Q&A, and a speaker promptly mentioned the legalese of 377A, dismissing any further exchange on the matter. I wondered how these students, with their private struggles, felt at the time; whether we were doing enough to help them. 

Is the teacher’s role simply to dispense information, or to guide them in making better choices? Or is sex-ed just another 3 hours of the syllabus we needed to fulfil without follow-up?

As it is, teachers themselves hesitate when asked in school because discussing homosexuality already causes worry about violating some MOE by-laws. So at most, it is implied as a psychological problem for the school counsellor. Other teachers and principals even declare it wrong or illegal. Personally, I have only managed to speak to students about it, not in my capacity as a teacher, but as an outside adult, sometimes online after school hours. Being out to them as queer also eases their trust and comfort level with the subject matter.

There are school counsellors assigned to deal with adolescent emotional volatility, and to a large extent, they are reliable sources, a relief even when teachers can’t deal with certain questions. But the unspoken stigma remains that only troubled teens are counselled. 

What about those who wonder about “a love which dares not speak its name?”

Teenagers are going to have sex, whether you like it or not. So why not just educated them on how to do it safely?
So every time I read about a promising student who offends, I wonder if they grasp the notion of consent, or have even dealt with their inner demons while in school. If parents can’t manage their questions, how much more can their teachers?  

During PTM sessions, a few parents will mention their anxieties about their child’s BGR, which I assume includes sex or petting. My stand as form teacher remains that I am a distant mentor who can only advise them to keep their grades up, only intervening if they violate school rules. What they do beyond campus is out of my purview. This is why I think that where sex-ed is concerned, teachers are also restricted to keeping their professional distance so the whole subject of sex-ed becomes mere science. 

We wish we could be more personal in our approach, and include conversations with the kids about their deeper issues. But we are also constrained by time and syllabus. 

And while we hope we could outsource this entirely to professional vendors equipped with the required expertise (read: comprehensive, and not just ‘abstinence-based’ sex-ed), this opens another can of budgetary constraints, not to mention the red-tape which often binds.

Are you a student or a teacher? What is sex-ed in schools like these days? Tell us at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Viv Loh Contributor