Whether in a classroom or at home, young people in China are in desperate need of “The Talk.” From startling increases in HIV and unplanned pregnancies to unreported sexual abuse, a dangerous ignorance about the birds and the bees and how to do “it” safely is putting the nation’s youth at risk.
While China has made extraordinary progress in bringing down HIV infection rates to some of the lowest in the world, there has been an alarming increase in new HIV cases among 15 to 24 year olds. During the first nine months of 2016, 2,321 students were diagnosed with HIV – a 410 percent increase over the same period in 2010.
Among China’s youth, gay men have been disproportionately affected by this growing crisis. The Chinese Center for Disease Control reported that from 2014 to October 2015, gay students accounted for over 80 percent of new student HIV infections.
Far from deliberate recklessness, these alarming trends are the result of a near total lack of sex education in China.
“I interviewed 100 HIV positive students and was saddened to learn that they did not know enough to protect themselves,” said Wu Zunyou, China CDC’s head of AIDS and HIV prevention.
Sex – let alone safe sex – is rarely discussed in public or at home, and schools seldom provide sex education beyond differences in male and female genitalia, leaving curious teens in the dark.
Following the Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949, sex became taboo as personal pleasure was seen as bourgeois and disruptive to one’s connection to the state. Instead, all energies were to be directed to the revolution.
The state-imposed puritanism only began to ease in the 90s, but it is still a highly-sensitive topic. China’s censors delete steamy romance scenes from movies and homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 2001.
Attempts to modernize sex education in schools have gained little traction. While the government has made significant efforts to stem the spread of HIV and is supportive of sex education, it has not made it part of the school curriculum and parents continue to object.
Earlier this year images from a Chinese textbook that contained illustrations of male and female genitalia as well as lessons on same-sex relationships and sexual abuse went viral, catching the ire of parents.
Some praised it for its “honest, unfiltered” approach to sex education, while others were mortified.
“Is it reasonable for a textbook to be compiled like this? I blush reading it,” wrote one mother on Weibo.