Thursday, March 01, 2007

sex education revisited

Just before Christmas last year, Aaron (on Singapore Angle) wrote an article on sex education. Following Aaron, Ben and myself also wrote articles about the issue. Ben and myself also engaged each other in the comments thread of this article.

Last week, Aaron, Ben, Kitana and myself had the opportunity to meet up over coffee. Among the issues we talked about was sex education, and Kitana has blogged her views on the discussion which transpired between us. This post is a reply to Kitana, as well as an attempt to clarify certain issues which I think are muddled together.


Firstly, I want to talk about moral obligation and responsibility. Shinaux (the Legal Janitor) commented in Kitana's article that it is the responsibility of parents to teach children about sex, and if they shirk this responsibility, then they are "morons". Being a young person and not a parent, I would feel rather uncomfortable calling parents "morons", but generally I do agree with his (and Ben's) sentiments. I don't think any one of us feel as if it is NOT the parent's responsibility to teach sex education. If you are a parent, and you really believe that no it is not your responsibility but the government's responsibility to teach your children about sex and you don't need to talk to them about it, and if your children get unwanted pregnancies or STDs then it is the government's fault, then I have to say sorry sir (or ma'am), I have very little respect for you.

However, to be fair, some parents are simply helpless, clueless, or ignorant on how to teach children about sex. It is not that they think they SHOULD NOT teach their children, but they don't know how. Or maybe even if they did, the children are not receptive to what they say (generation gap?). Or maybe they keep thinking, later then teach lah now they still young and don't realize until it's too late. Or maybe they think, since the schools surely got teach this, then they probably do a better job than me anyway, and hence I don't need to teach. Perhaps Ben is thinking about the last kind of mentality when he suggested that the state should just not have any sex education at all. Don't give parents an excuse not to teach sex ed to their children.

In a deontological sense (Aaron, I blame you for spamming this technical word!), Ben's suggestion is rather satisfying. But let's talk about point of view. Let me ask the question: who is the moral agent (the person making moral decisions)? If the moral agent is the parent, the moral question is "Should I teach my children sex education or not? How if so?" But if the moral agent is the government, the moral question then becomes "Should we have sex education in schools or not? How if so?" This is a different question for a different moral agent, and ought to be treated differently from the first question. If the answer is yes for the first question, then it is fair to say that there is moral obligation for the parents to teaching sex ed. However, that does not mean that the answer to the second question is definitely a "no", and it also does not mean that the government therefore has no obligation just because it is the parent's obligation. Hence in this sense, the question "who's burden is it to teach sex ed" is a misleading question.

Let's talk about the second question now. What are the factors that the government need to consider when thinking about such a policy? Governments can take an ideological approach, or a pragmatic (consequentialist) approach to policies. One possible ideological approach could be "we think abstinence is just silly, and hence we'll just teach safe sex". Another ideological approach would be "since sex ed is the responsibility of the parent, it is not our dai chi, so we're not going to give sex ed. If you kids got STD or unwanted pregnancies, that's your problem." These are not unreasonable views, and there can be arguments to defend such views. But the government is not likely to adopt such views, or any ideological views for that matter. Good governance always has a strong aspect of pragmatism, and keeping in mind the consequences of policy.

So if we want to talk about pragmatism and consequences, what are the factors behind state-sanctioned sex education? STDs and unwanted pregnancies definitely. It is in the best interests of the nation, people and government to clamp down on STDs and unwanted pregnancies. But that is not the only factor. Not causing unhappiness among the people by implementing a policy which directly contradicts the values and beliefs of the such people, is another factor to consider.

In the conversation I had with Ben over coffee, Ben talked about "community values". Currently, the community majority would probably frown upon pre-marital sex, and hence they would rather advocate something which promotes abstinence, instead of safe sex. Ben thinks it is okay to implement policies which agree with the community majority, but ultimately, the harm (of STDs and unwanted pregnancies) ought to be clamped down. I don't disagree. I personally think that just the pure dissemination of information (tell the kids what will happen when you have sex without condoms), yet maintaining no stand on advocating either abstinence or safe sex is sufficient to do that. This is probably able to clamp down on STDs and unwanted pregnancies enough without offending community values. If it so happens that it is only the MINORITY of the community which believes in abstinence, I agree that perhaps the government ought to promote safe sex instead, since that is probably more effective in clamping down STDs and unwanted pregnancies (as opposed to a non-advocacy of either view), and maybe the unhappiness of the minority is insignificant compared to that.

A last work about neutrality when teaching sex education. I think that pedagogically, when you tell a student "If you don't use condoms then you will have STDs and unwanted pregnancies", and NOTHING ELSE, that is as good as saying "you SHOULD use condoms when having sex". And that is advocating safe sex over abstinence. To be truly neutral, the teacher might have to say "Different people have different views about sex. Some believe that we should abstain from sex until marriage [maybe give reasons here]. Others believe it is okay to have sex before marriage, provided you are responsible about it [maybe give reasons here]. Ultimately, you decide for yourself which one you want to believe in."

[Addendum: I forgot to talk about the incident of the pregnant 9 year old girl. I think we are too quick to blame lack of sex-ed on this case. The father of the child is a 14 year old. If he was say, a 16, 18 or 20 year old, what will we be crying instead? Pedophile? Statutory rape? I think it is importance to investigate the specific circumstances behind this situation, and find out what was the cause of such a unlikely occurance. After that, we can think about how to prevent such things from happening again.

I had my first sex ed class when I was 10 years old. None of us took it seriously. Everyone was giggling or covering their eyes. I think sex education for kids this young is just not going to work. If there is a problem with sex at such a young age, one must take a look at what are the factors which causes such young sex, and see if there are other ways to curb this problem. Here are two possibilities: greater enforcement for the restriction of pornography to minors, and education for parents on how children might be getting themselves exposed to sex at a young age.]

[Addendum 2: From New Paper (2/3/07): in a survey of 1,553 13 and 14-year-olds,

27% said they had sex before (13% had "no opinion")
12% said they were pregnant or made someone pregnant before (25% had "no opinion")
61% said parents did not inculcate the responsibilities of sex to them (12% had "no opinion")
60% felt that there is insufficient sex education in school (7% had "no opinion").

In the same newspaper, it is reported that MP Ang Moh Seng suggested that to boost birth rate, a new CCA club "the Friendship Club" can be formed in schools to teach students how to "pak tor" correctly.]


the Stark in Winterfell said...

I dunno if this has been discussed, but perhaps there should be discussions with regards to pre marital sex on the lines of facing up to the consequences of one's actions?

For example, if a couple chooses to engage in PMS, then are they prepared for an unplanned pregnancy? Are they willing to face the consequences of the action? Personally i feel that the problem is people often abdicate their responsibilities and thus problems arise...

Piper said...

Friendship Clubs?! To learn to pak tor? Is he serious? What kinds of activities would they have?

I am speechless.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


I don't have the New Paper article with me, so I can't refer to it. If I remember, his point was that in the previous generation, many people, including himself, found their spouses-to-be in school. Perhaps we could encourage that in schools nowadays in an CCA which revolves around making friends and social interactions. Part of those social interactions includes dating I would believe.

piper said...

Ah well. If they do start Friendship Clubs, maybe I can be the teacher I/C. We can go out and drink coffee, watch movies. Maybe the school will pay for us! :p

cognitivedissonance said...

Friendship Club? That's like so ..... SDU!!! :-p Oh goodness.