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China continues to lag behind in sex education

The high-profile case of a Shandong businessman accused of raping his adopted daughter over a period of three years has highlighted the consequences of the lack of sex education and sexual assault knowledge in China.

As reported by South Review magazine, the alleged victim, Xingxing (pseudonym), was unaware that she had been raped by the perpetrator at age 14 until she looked up online medical advice on vaginal bleeding. Following the online doctor’s advice, Xingxing decided to call the police for help, though they repeatedly failed to act (the case is now under investigation by a working team dispatched by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate).

According to the SPP, 32,500 cases of child molestation were heard and adjudicated by Chinese courts from January 2018 to October 2019. The Girls’ Protection Program at the China Foundation of Culture and Arts for Children stated that the majority of sexual assault victims are minors, and most are subject to forms of sexual assault other than rape—meaning that they or their guardians may not realize they have been sexually assaulted, and may refuse to seek help due to a sense of shame.

Sex education in China began as early as 1910, when the writer Lu Xun taught physiology courses in Hangzhou secondary schools. However, students were ashamed of the sensitive topic, and Lu reportedly could not keep the class from giggling when he talked about male and female genitals.

In the 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai hosted a symposium on sex education with 10 experts, who published relevant articles in newspapers and received more than 1,000 letters from teenagers across the country on sexual health. In response, the experts published a series of papers on the topic, and this led to the introduction of sex education in schools.

However, in a culture of sexual shaming, efforts to promote sex education face frequent setbacks. In February 2017, a series of books entitled Cherishing Life: Sexual Education Manual for Pupils, published by the Beijing Normal University Publishing House, was boycotted by many parents for “shameless” content. In the ensuing backlash, the manual was pulled from bookstore shelves, and is reported to be undergoing revisions.

Sex education in public schools is mandatory, but is euphemistically known as “adolescent health” education, and there is no fixed curriculum. “Many schools…only cover the biological aspects of sex,” renowned sexologist Pan Suiming wrote in a book in 2009. “They basically don’t cover sexual values, behavior, and rights.”

Parents also express negative or secretive attitudes about sex, leaving children and teens ignorant and vulnerable to misinformation online. According to a survey by Girls’ Protection, over 68 percent of over 9,000 parents in 31 provinces failed to teach their children about sex.

Since 2018, Girls’ Protection has been providing classes on self-protection and sex education to 2.3 million children and 490,000 parents across China, including online courses, advice for children on protecting themselves from sexual assault, and training for sex educators.

“We cannot just rely on schools for sex education,” Tong Li, the general secretary of the China Sexology Association, noted at the first China Sexologist Conference held in Beijing in 2018. “Media and non-governmental organizations have some responsibility, and governments and relevant authorities need to support them…in vigorously disseminating high quality sex education. Everyone has a part to play.”

Shameful Silence is a story from our issue, “Contagion.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Yang Tingting (杨婷婷)

Yang Tingting is a Chinese editor at The World of Chinese. Interested in telling Chinese stories, she writes mainly about culture, language, and society.

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