Stu Nugent, a writer at LELO, the world’s leading pleasure brand, below discusses the introduction of a new sex education syllabus in China, and how it might just cause some consternation for Western educators.
There’s something interesting happening in China.
It’s something that many of us here in the West have been fighting for and wrestling with for decades, and yet in China, a country with a population more than the US, Australia, Russia, and all of Europe COMBINED, they did it overnight.
The Chinese government has just overhauled its sex education curriculum, and the contents should leave us all just a little bit embarrassed at the state of our own. It’s not just good, it’s surprisingly progressive.
THE GREAT WALL OF VAGINA
Some context. China’s regulations governing sex and sexual activity are simultaneously very complex and very vague. There are some elements that are liberal, and others that are confusingly conservative.
For example, sex toys and condoms are sold at the counter in every little shop in every major city. Seriously. Walk up to the counter and from left to right, it’s coffee, breath mints, chewing gum, condoms, lube, vibrators. And why wouldn’t it be? In a country that’s been desperately trying to manage its population for the last 40 years, doesn’t it make sense that masturbation and contraception are so enthusiastically promoted?
Sex for pleasure, then, seems to be warmly embraced in China. But only at first glance. Because in China, similar to its laws regarding nebulous crimes like “hooliganism,” there’s a law against something that roughly translates to “group licentiousness.” It’s not often enforced, but a couple of years ago a 53-year-old computer scientist received a four year sentence for organizing a wife-swapping party. And if you’re a member of the Communist Party, a new regulation prohibits you from sexual activity that might “bring the Party into disrepute” via “improper sexual relations” – without any guidance whatsoever on what constitutes impropriety.
LITTLE RED SEXBOOK
Sex work is officially illegal but it’s easily available everywhere, and since 2013 parlors have enjoyed some deregulation. Homosexuality is absolutely legal and relatively common, but poorly understood – bureaucratically speaking. The legal age of consent is 14, but teenage pregnancy is very unusual. (Draw your own conclusions on that.)
What comes from all this is a sense that China is very much a country getting to grips with its own sexuality, as a culture still mired in revolution and upheaval. This is a culture in an emotional and moral conflict as it struggles to reconcile the gulf between sex for pleasure and sex for procreation, fighting to understand the impact of the liberalization of sex on its conservative cultural heritage and its economic future.
This is a puzzling dichotomy, especially since China is by far and away the world’s most prolific producer and exporter of the sex toys sitting in your bedside drawer right now. How can a country that’s so nervous about its own sexuality be simultaneously producing the bulk of the world’s most sexually progressive products?
YEAR OF THE COCK
It’s for reasons like this that Chinese parents have long been crying out for a comprehensive overhaul of their children’s sex education. This week, those cries were answered.
Already rolled out into schools across the sprawling country, the new sex education curriculum begins at 2nd Grade level, or around 8 years old. In it, children are taught about the basic logistics of sex, and then far, far more besides.
The curriculum includes a series of 12 colorful books that cover not only issues of sex, but of hygiene, social integration, emotional development, self-esteem and much more. Through illustrations and simple language, they introduce the fundamentals of gender equality, encouraging the children to believe they can be whatever they want to be, regardless of gender.
Images of reproduction are intimate and explicit. They’re cartoonish, but not patronizing.
The books cover in detail a topic that’s depressingly underrepresented in Western sex education: consent. Not only does the book empower children to start taking responsibility for their own bodies surprisingly early, it also teaches the importance of their ability to offer or refuse consent. What’s more, it shows that potential sexual abusers can be women as well as men.
In one Grade 2 book, an uncle tells his niece: "Hong, you've grown so beautiful. I’ve bought you a vest. Can you take off your t-shirt so I can help you put on your new vest?" The niece replies: "Thanks Uncle, but I can put on my own clothes and don't need your help. Dad is in the kitchen making lunch and I need to help him."
In another, a far less subtle aunt tells her nephew, "Jun, you've grown so tall now. Take down your pants so Auntie can see if your penis has also grown longer." The boy says: "No, I'm going home now," and he tells his parents about it when he gets home. It goes on to show the child being praised for telling his parents who in turn go on to tell the police.
The page below talks about the importance of expressing your feelings when your parents argue. What’s most impressive in these books is the sense of individuality and personhood they are attempting to bestow on their readers. It’s far beyond sex education, it’s sociosexual education.
By Grade 4, students are being introduced to same sex desires and relationships. The following page explains that love should be respected in all its forms.
Grade 5 talks about the place of love in relationships, and how it’s a beautiful thing in all its forms. At this stage they’re exposed to the risks of sex, with information about STIs and safe sex.
Grade 6 introduces further information about sexual “minorities”, that is to say the books go on to cover non-binary expression and even bisexuality.
Then perhaps the most surprising turn: relationship dynamics. After dealing with what might be considered “traditional” and “non-traditional” models, the textbooks go on to support people who choose to be single, as well as those who choose to be partnered, stating: “whatever you choose in life, that’s your right, and you deserve to be respected for it.” The following image talks about divorced and single people, with the words: “We should respect those who want to live a single life, don’t pressure them.”
I’ve never seen sex education expand THAT far. Incidentally, while the textbook does state that same-sex marriages cannot be legally registered in China, it also says same-sex relationships can and do thrive, and same-sex couples can and do raise children.
BLUE BLOOD IN RED CHINA
While there is a lot to celebrate here and it marks an incredibly positive step forward for the sexual politics of the world’s largest nation, it doesn’t yet detract from the damage done by Chinese sex education to date. Anecdotal evidence suggests that sex ed in China has been so lacking that many male students believe, for example, that menstrual blood is blue, because the only exposure they’ve had to it comes from TV adverts for tampons.
And how can you blame them, when this frankly baffling video is what has counted as sex education as recently as 2014:
Perhaps I’m being too optimistic here. Perhaps even the fact that I’m excited to see such a change should actually be dispiriting, as it exposes the poorness of sex education overall. But, given the UK has only now made sex education mandatory (better late than never, right?), we can only commend the Chinese for showing the rest of us up.
As a largely secular nation, it’s perhaps easier in China to make these changes in school textbooks than it is in a country loaded with religious sensibility, like the US, where science is still a battleground and education is up for grabs, as proven by the recent protests in California over the “graphic” content of their own sex ed curriculum.
But one thing should be free of dogma, and free of controversy: that children should be taught to understand the power of consent, and encouraged to take responsibility for their bodies. If we need to take cues from China, of all places, to do that, then we need to swallow our pride and just do it.