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Sex and Myth: Reckoning with Rural China’s Haphazard Sex Education

XUPU, China—Pinzheng Tang’s teacher distributed “sex-ed” manuals—wedged between their math, history, and language textbooks—to him and his classmates on their first day of high school. On that sultry summer Hunan day, Tang regarded the manuals with mild curiosity, but they were never mentioned again.

“Rural schools won’t have sex education classes,” Tang, a 15-year-old student at rural Hunan’s Xupu No. 1 Middle School, said in an interview with The Politic. “Unlike city schools, we need to spend all of class preparing for the gaokao [China’s national college entrance exam].” To learn everything they must know, Tang and his classmates go to school from Monday to Saturday, with class from 7:50am to around 9pm each day. “We simply don’t have time for sex ed.”

He and his friends have never read the manual during the little free time they have, Tang said.

In December, China finished its first year of issuing certifications to sex educators. Until recently, the vast majority of Chinese adolescents had no formal sex education. In 2011, China’s State Council made sexual health education mandatory in all schools, but most teachers taught abstinence-based education or biology-textbook sexual reproduction. In 2018, the Chinese government issued certifications to sex-ed lecturers, and these lecturers have created pop-up sex-ed camps, which some have attended in response to schools’ lack of comprehensive sex-ed.

“It’s still very conservative here,” Yang Chen, a homeroom teacher at the rural Xupu No. 1 Middle School, said. “Sex education has not yet entered our classrooms with great fanfare.”

Chen explains that if there were any sex education for students in rural Hunan, it would appear in a junior high biology class, if at all. As part of a series titled Life and Health Common Knowledge (生命与健康常识 ), Hunan students may receive “textbooks” that discuss a variety of health, safety, and hygiene tips. The content ranges from a biological explanation and diagram of male and female reproductive organs to advice for rescuing a drowning person. While some rural junior high schools dedicate class time to accompanying the “textbook,” sex is mentioned briefly—one unit in a littany of many.The consequences of minimal sex-ed are visible. China, while 4.25 times as populous as the United States, performs 40 times the number of abortions–over 24 million abortions annually, compared to 600,000 per year in the U.S.. In 2011 to 2015, the number of HIV cases grew at 35 percent per year among the 15-24 age group, and China currently accounts for three percent of new HIV infections globally. Dangerous misconceptions unaddressed by teachers or parents contribute dramatically to these numbers. While students may receive more formal sex education in universities, many rural students never attend university, making sex education in secondary schooling even more critical.
“Chinese girls learn from their boyfriends. Their boyfriends learn from porn,” Stephany Zoo, co-founder of Buzz and Bloom (蜜蜂兰花), an online service that provides sex health and education advice over Chinese messaging app WeChat, said in an interview with The Politic.

Zoo recalls one case in particular: One of her clients, a chemistry major at Tsinghua University, called her in a panic. The client’s boyfriend told her that if a woman holds her breath while her partner ejaculates inside her, she will avoid pregnancy. Hold her breath she did, but she could not suppress a hiccup and immediately asked Zoo if the small intake of air had allowed her to become pregnant. Zoo knew the woman was smart— Tsinghua, dubbed “China’s MIT,” overtook MIT in 2015 as #1 on the U.S. News & World Report’s list for best global universities for engineering.
“If [this client] could believe these urban myths,” Zoo said. “You can imagine how many others in China might believe them.”

Educational disparities are largely de jure. At birth, China’s residents are officially assigned “rural” or “urban” hukou, a system of household registration according to place of birth. The designation on their passport limits citizens’ mobility, and various hukou passports can offer wildly different privileges, including varying quality of education, housing, jobs, and more. While the schools for city-hukou students may offer some aspects of Western education, including access to new pop-up sex-ed workshops or experimental in-class sex education curriculum, rural students will be the last to receive these privileges.

Even then, the Chinese public, especially in rural, conservative areas, may be comfortable with only this small mention of sex education. In 2017, Beijing Normal University published a series of textbooks, titled Love Your Life (珍爱生命), after over nine years of trials at select schools, but they quickly attracted controversy.

“There was big backlash,” Darius Longarino, a Paul Tsai China Center senior fellow who has managed LGBT rights legal reform programs in China, said in an interview with The Politic. The controversial textbooks cover many sex and relationship topics, including homosexuality, reproduction, safer sex, sexual abuse.

The outrage began after one parent from Hangzhou—the cosmopolitan capital of Zhejiang province—posted pictures of the textbook to Weibo, China’s Twitter, commenting on a “graphic illustration,” in which a cartoon woman asks a man, “can you show me your penis?” The user added, “I myself would blush looking at it,” which prompted some to denounce the textbooks as “absolutely unacceptable” and others to welcome them as a needed remedy to China’s longstanding lack of sex education.

These textbooks, while lauded by Western media, have been slow to spread to less urban cities. In Tang’s case, his entire sex education comprised the short snippets given in his junior high years. Even that was more than many other rural students receive.

Sex is a taboo topic in China. People rarely publicly discuss sex; the “birds and the bees” talk from parent to child is also much less common than in the West. But even if schools wanted to adopt more comprehensive sex education, school teachers—especially in rural China—may be ill-equipped to teach comprehensive sex education. Zoo explains that many teachers grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s proletariat movement that also ruthlessly repressed erotic love to turn citizens’ focus toward revolutionary communist ideals.

Wei Su, a former leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and current Yale professor, lived through the government’s sexual repression during his college years . As part of the first cohort to return to the universities since their doors were shuttered during the Cultural Revolution, Su remembers that even college students were heavily discouraged from dating.

“There were no co-ed dances,” Su said of his time at Sun Yat-sen University, which was founded by the first president of the Republic of China and the leader of the Kuomintang. “Everyone was too scared to organize one. Students who dated were sent to different cities after college.”
Though Su organized the university’s first co-ed dance in 1979, he got off easy with little punishment.

One professor nicknamed “Big Sister Ma,” from Xi’an, a more conservative part of China, wrote an article encouraging women and men to have dances within their own homes. At the time, law enforcement found Ma guilty of mass “hooliganism, ”a new criminal charge instituted by former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping for any “gangster behavior.”
She was caught and promptly executed by shooting.

“It really scared people,” Su said. “This was urban China, but rural China was even [stricter].” During the Cultural Revolution, “intellectual” youths were sent down to the countryside to learn from farmers and laborers. Those who later scored well on the gaokao could return to universities afterward. Those who did not remained.

Despite China’s economic growth, the legacy of cultural conservatism survives, especially in the countryside. “They know nothing about sex education,” Zoo said of most teachers. “It’s blind leading the blind. Rather than getting giggles [from students], they give them a manual or a book and say ‘go read it and figure it out yourself.’”

Even if the students read the manual, they aren’t asking any questions, Chen said. “Students are embarrassed to ask anyways.”

The cities are much more progressive, and Tang thinks that rural areas are still largely influenced by old Chinese morality. Similar to the American Midwest, some believe that teaching comprehensive sex education is akin to condoning sex and will encourage young people to have sex earlier. However, women in rural China typically marry earlier, become sexually active at a younger age, and thus become victims to various misunderstandings and ignorant attitudes about sex.

These misunderstandings are magnified on the countryside but exist everywhere in China. For instance, only ten percent of sexually active Chinese youths use condoms. While genuine ignorance factors into low usage, many have the misconception that only those who are “dirty” use condoms, Zoo said. They are commonly associated with prostitutes, which turns away some potential users.

Women are also reluctant to use birth control, due to a fear of seeming too sexually experienced. In fact, sexual ignorance in women is culturally attractive to Chinese men. Zoo also said that older women warned Zoo’s clients that birth control would “impede on your womb and ability to get pregnant later.”

This, combined with a wild litany of sexual superstitions—such as, period sex causes early menopause or sex standing up prevents pregnancy—has made abortion the primary form of birth control for many young women.
“It’s hard to create discussion surrounding these types of issues,” Longarino said. In combatting old, entrenched attitudes about sex, such as those surrounding LGBT issues or sex for pleasure, more awareness needs to be raised to change anything, he said.

After all, condoms are sold in many rural and urban grocery stores, often present at the checkout line with mints, magazines, and chocolates. An IUD costs less than ten dollars in China. Customers can buy birth control over the counter. But young people aren’t using them enough.

Zoo was astonished when she talked to Chinese doctors about how rampant abortion was. Hospitals don’t need to keep medical records of who has had an abortion. Zoo said that one doctor had a patient that already had five to six abortions, but the doctor didn’t know it until they saw the patient’s scarring. Before ending the one-child policy in 2016, the Chinese government had little incentive to remedy the high abortion rate.

Conversely, hospitals keep records of patients’ STDs, which can worsen the consequences of lacking STD knowledge. In fact, having a record of an STD can be used against citizens for future schooling and employment, making them more easily transmitted and less adequately treated. For rural citizens who have less mobility, they are even more discouraged from coming forward with STDs, because of the increased lack of anonymity.

As a result, some government bodies, such as the Women’s Federation of China have been supportive of increased sex-ed to help women understand their sexual rights.

Still, many question how necessary a more comprehensive sex education curriculum is.

“We grow up,” Chen said. “That area of knowledge—we will just naturally understand.”

Chinese citizens are becoming more sexually active; in 2015, 71 percent of survey respondents reported they had engaged in premarital sex, compared to 15 percent in 1989. As China undergoes a sexual awakening, it may need to prepare its citizens well.

Tang doesn’t care whether or not he has better sex education at the moment. He and his friends just want to get into college, which requires doing well on one of the most notoriously difficult exams in the world.

“This one score will determine our futures, and a lot of us rural students might not get to college,” Tang said. “We’re not going to look at manuals in our free time if we’re not taught it in class.”