Is Sex Education in Taiwan Enough? If Not, Why?

Is Sex Education in Taiwan Enough? If Not, Why?
Photo Credit: Corbis / 達志影像

ICRT, Taiwan’s only international radio station, is a valuable source of information for people living in Taiwan who have insufficient command of the Chinese language. I am a regular listener of this broadcasting station, however only for just a few hours in the morning before I leave for work. One of the insightful programs aired during that period of time is ‘Taiwan Talk’, a series of interviews held with social workers, artists, government officials, scholars, etc. Mostly, the topics touch social issues related to this island.

A recent broadcast was about sex education in Taiwan. The interviewee – Ms. Huang Sue-ying, the chairwoman of Taiwan Women’s Link – is behind a critical study that has screened government-sanctioned textbooks including teachers’ handbooks currently used for sex education in Taiwan’s classrooms. The interview was about the findings of this study. I have neither read the study nor the books in question, but I see no reason to doubt Ms. Huang’s accuracy when referring to those sources.

This study points at some ideological misconceptions that presently shape the official sex education on this island. One of them, according to Ms. Su, is a moralizing tone coupled with traditional thinking: instead of explaining practices of safe sex in view of both unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections, those books simply recommend either sexual abstention or the practice of sex solely within wedlock (a girl’s virginity as an exclusive ‘gift for the husband’).

Well, it’s true: no sex, no pregnancy – unless you are the Virgin Mary. But I wonder if young people in Taiwan are really impressed by such heart-warming advice, especially when it comes, as reported, with the threat that premarital sex would not only cause erectile problems, but also be responsible for a reduction in sexual desire later on. This is sheer nonsense, although I remember I had problems of the first kind when I was thirteen. But they were solved soon after, and with no effect regarding the latter threat.

Ms. Huang also mentions other mishandlings of related issues including the spreading of false facts regarding the use of condoms, the definition of homosexuality, and the cause of abortions. When asked about the roots for such a deplorable situation, she identifies culture, religion, and parents: the local culture suppresses proper sex education by tabooing it; religion – especially the Catholic Church which seems to have had a strong influence on the textbook publishers – propagates moral values picked up from a bye-gone time; and over-ambitious parents often think that sex would distract their children from academic duties.

Now let’s reflect a moment upon the educational and moral paradigms that lie behind such super-caring à la Taiwan. In traditional societies like the Taiwanese parents, religion, and schools are critical to transmitting existing values from one generation to the next, securing thereby cultural identity on the basis of yesterday’s world: traditional people are therefore backwards-looking. Whereas most people probably agree with that judgment, it is less obvious that traditionalists are also selfish at the same time: they privilege age at the cost of the young generation. I.e., they privilege themselves because they consider traditional ways of life as essential for ways of life in general, to be followed by anybody under their influence and control. Traditional parents think that their children should have a life just like theirs; Christians want the young to believe what they themselves believe; and traditional teachers want their students reproduce a culture which privileges the role of teachers. In such traditional pedagogy the older generation is always the winner – they know of course tradition better than the young. Modern thinking would endanger that social hierarchy. In short: the well-being of the young is not really the core concern of the elderly in traditional cultures; it is instead their own wellbeing which is at the center of their educational efforts.

Traditional thinking is, without necessarily wishing it to be, selfish, unfair, and more often than not wrong. The current sex education in this country is a typical example in this aspect. It’s not about forming individuals who are to become responsible for their own decisions at the earliest possible stage; it’s about reproducing ideals that in fact privilege the old regardless desires and ideas of the young, and often also regardless truths. Grandmas want the young to be like grandmas.

I wonder why so many young people are still so obedient and respectful vis-à-vis traditional institutions and people: too many of them still live the lives of others in the name of ‘guidance’ along outdated traditional values. There is not enough palpable discontent among the young vis-à-vis an anti-youth, often incompetent tradition which is still dominating education island-wide. Who wants to be advised in sexual matters from parents, teachers, etc. whose sexual record in view of frequency seemingly corresponds with the number of their children? Who wants to be advised about sex on the basis of values of a religion which inherently abhors sex and whose representatives only qualify for the job after having vowed to abstain from sexual activities (which, by the way, has created a lot of hypocrites among them)? It’s like asking a blind man to explain the effect of the color red on his visual abilities.

I think it’s difficult to say when a young person is mature enough to get engaged in sexual relationships. For some the age is sixteen or even earlier, for some it is later, all depending on one’s intellectual and emotional development. In any case: there should be no interference with one’s sexual life by outsiders once adulthood is reached, i.e. at the age of eighteen – outsiders are all the others except the couple. If a young person turning eighteen still needs guidance with regard to sex, then probably something went wrong with the education. But in such cases the ones to be blamed are parents and teachers, but not the victims of a traditional education which deliberately misguides them in essential matters.

There is still too much intellectual laziness and complacency in the minds of the young in Taiwan, despite the refreshing uprising we have experienced in Taipei more than a year ago – not much has followed in its wake since then, at least here among my students. I have discussed this uprising in my classes at that time, and there was hardly anyone who did not support the movement in Taipei. But when asked about the consequences this event had for their personal lives they all fell back into the tradition-mode, condoning and reproducing old ways of thinking as if the March 2014 events never happened. Taiwan needs an Asian version of 1968, a rebellion against dominating minds with a long beard that also takes the risk of failure and errors into account.

Being a teenager you may wish to follow traditional or modern ideas. Whatever you choose – at least you should have this choice.