September 24th, 2013

Harmful constructions of women in sex education

Sex education is a controversial and hotly debated issue around the world. AWARE’s latest roundtable discussion took this topic on, focusing on the harmful constructions of young women in some sex education curricula.

Twenty participants gathered on the evening of 19 September to share their views and experiences, and listen to Cate Smith, a PhD student who has done her graduate thesis on the adverse effects of abstinence-only curricula on America’s teens, discuss her research.

sex-edTypically, there are two common types of sex education: a science-oriented comprehensive curriculum, aiming to help youth minimise risks related to sexual activity; and a values-based curriculum, advocating only abstinence until after marriage.

Sex education in Singapore is largely based on the second, using abstinence as the main approach in keeping youth from premarital sexual activity, and leaving out information on contraception and sexual health.

Cate Smith’s research on abstinence-only sex education showed that not only do such curricula often disseminate false facts on contraception failure rates, but also promote very harmful images of young women and their behaviour.

“Every guy wants a wife who is beautiful inside out”, says one of the sex-ed pamphlets Cate collected in her study, describing a woman who has premarital sex as a person without character, tainted with diseases.

The ‘abstinence-only’ curriculum claims that there is a natural difference between the sexes. While boys are driven by sexual urges that they should – but might not be able to – control, girls are gatekeepers without a sexuality of their own, responsible for controlling the men.

“Doesn’t this give permission to rape?” was one of the first questions raised when the discussion began. Indeed, research has shown that the promotion of such gender roles can lead to sexual violence against women. When boys are “biologically” freed from taking responsibility for their own actions– and this responsibility is transferred to the girls – the boys become perpetrators and the girls, victims.

Additionally, the depiction of women as having no sexual agency leaves them dangerously unprepared to understand and navigate their sexuality and relationships in a healthy and empowered manner.

The roundtable group shared their varied personal experiences of sex education. The discussion left the participants with a question to consider.

“How can a good sex education be provided in various societies, despite parents, schools and governments functioning as the culture’s gate-keepers?”


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