According to Li Hongyan, national programme officer at the Unesco Beijing cluster office, demand for sex education “far exceeds supply”.
“Family should be where sex education is first taught, but parents tend to shift the responsibility to schools because of their limited knowledge or personal values,” she said.
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“But schools also face many challenges, including the lack of specialist teachers and possible objections from parents.”
Sex education has been a mandatory part of the school curriculum in China since 2011, but Li said there was a lack of training programmes for teachers, with Chengdu University being the only place in the country that offers a formal course in the subject.
In a poll of 55,000 university students conducted by the China Family Planning Association between 2019 and 2020, just over half – 52 per cent – said they received sex education at school.
More than half of those who had been educated said they were taught at secondary school, while 21 per cent said they had their first lessons in primary school.
“Sex education at schools is very important, but it is relatively late for Chinese students to receive their first formal sex education,” the association said.
Educating children about sex at an earlier age can help them to protect themselves from sexual assault, it said.
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Deng Ting, a 22-year-old from Guangdong province in southern China, said some of the sex education she received at university was harrowing.
In one lesson about contraception, she and her classmates – both men and women – were shown how to put a condom on a banana. But then things took an unpleasant turn, when the group was shown a video of a woman having an abortion, she said.
“It was frightening. We saw how the fetus is torn apart and removed from the womb. All the girls in our class freaked out,” Deng said.
“The message I got was that I shouldn’t have sex lightly because it is dangerous. All the burden would fall on girls while boys could get away with the consequences of unplanned pregnancy.”
A Unesco study published in 2018 said Chinese middle schools tended to integrate sex education classes into other subjects, like biology, psychology and moral education.
“It is very hard to cover the entire content of sex education in carrier subjects and it is unrealistic to expect teachers to have knowledge of all of the topics,” it said.
The report said sex education in China mainly covered reproductive health, self-esteem, sexual differences, heterosexual relationships and self-protection, but rarely looked at topics like sexual orientation or menstruation.
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Last year, sales of a series of books on sex education published by the Beijing Normal University Publishing Group were halted after being criticised for mentioning homosexuality.
“Some misbelieve that introducing the idea of homosexuality to primary school pupils might change their sexual orientation,” the books’ author Liu Wenli said.
“Sexuality remains a very sensitive topic in China. It will continue to be controversial but we cannot stop. We need to change the atmosphere by increasing the public’s scientific literacy.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.
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