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Dr. Wenli Liu on the Challenges of Developing China’s Sexuality Education Curriculum – US-China Today

On Oct. 17, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress,  one of the PRC’s main governing bodies, declared that schools should conduct “age-appropriate sex education for minors, increasing their awareness and ability to protect themselves against sexual abuse and sexual harassment.” This landmark revision to standing child protection laws will make sex education mandatory, put women in charge of sensitive legal cases involving girls and hold schools, businesses and online service providers responsible when young people are harmed. 

Dr. Wenli Liu is an associate professor at the Beijing Normal University’s School of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Liu and her team develop comprehensive sexuality education textbooks for kindergarteners and primary school students. Liu has been an activist for increased sexuality education since the 1980s, advocating for comprehensive sexuality education into China’s national education curriculum when most of the country was still resistant to the idea.

According to UNESCO, comprehensive sexuality education is not just about sex but rather about relationships, gender, puberty, consent, and sexual and reproductive health. Scholars and educators around the world refer to UNESCO’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education as a guideline for their work in sexuality education, Liu’s team included.

In 2017, the government removed a series of textbooks authored by Liu, after complaints about explicit content and the normalization of homosexuality surfaced.

The eight tenets of sexuality education, as described by UNESCO’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education.

You started pursuing sexuality education back in the 1980s. What sparked your interest in championing sexuality education? How has the promotion of sexuality education changed over time?

There was not a clear event that led me into the field of sexuality education, but rather my interest accumulated throughout my upbringing and education. … My grandma would often recount her life story. She had given birth to 14 kids — due to lack of knowledge about birth control — and only four of them lived to adulthood. Her experience made me realize that because women didn’t receive sex education at the time — even women who went to school were not educated on reproductive health — they suffered a lot from tragic errors in child conception and delivery.

When I went to college, I majored in biology and had classes in anatomy, physiology, embryology and genetics, which included information about sex, the reproductive system and the birth of life. I learned this knowledge in college, and I thought that it was pretty late to be getting this new information. And I learned these things only because I was a biology student. It was harder for other students to get sexuality education at school. My own experiences taught me that students should get access to sexuality education as early as possible.

After graduation, I taught high school students biology for a few years, preparing them for the Chinese college entrance exam. My students would have difficulty solving problems on genetics and reproduction, and some had bad hygiene habits, and it turned out that their previous teachers didn’t spend quality time on these chapters and some even skipped them and asked the students to read them after class. My upbringing, my education and my career experience all made me realize that sexuality education in China needs more attention and people to work on it. So in 1988, I chose the topic of sexuality education for my master’s dissertation and that’s how I got into this field professionally.

Back then, we didn’t directly call it “sex education.” Instead, we used the term “adolescence education.” It was in 1988 when the education commission issued a file that supports high schools to implement adolescent education, and I think that marked a new era for sexuality education in China.

From 1978, when I graduated from high school, to 1988, when I set my foot into sexuality education, I think that was the golden days for Chinese people becoming more open-minded. Everything was so invigorating and full of youthful spirit during the Chinese economic reform. I really miss that time, even though people didn’t directly say the word “sex education.” I remember Chinese people embracing new things and new ideas from other parts of the world with passion and open-mindedness.

Sexuality education developed rapidly under that social climate. Though nowadays people are more open with sex and premarital sex, I don’t think people nowadays have become more accepting of the idea and the importance of sexuality education.

Due to the increased exposure of child sexual abuse cases in recent years, people are calling for including sex education at school, but they advocate sex education only to prevent sexual assault. We do have a few teams dedicated to comprehensive sexuality education, but we need to compete with conservative ideas like chastity education and ethical code for women. Though it’s very hard to break down stereotypes by promoting sexuality education, I still see a huge growth potential for sexuality education in China. 

On Oct. 17, China approved new legislation that makes sex education mandatory in K-12 education. What was your reaction to this legislation, and what do you think it means for the future of sex/sexuality education in China?

Liu spoke at a panel discussion on the latest revision of China’s children protection laws.

Now it’s in the law, we don’t have to be evasive about what we’re doing. Now we can use the term ‘sex education’ rather than using euphemisms like ‘adolescence education’ or ‘health education.’ This new legislation provides legal support and legitimacy to what we are doing now and can mitigate some of the concerns voiced by parents and schools. Though we still have a long way to go, this legislation at least gives us a direction.

However, some people point out that mandatory sex education is placed under the entry of sexual harassment prevention. This could send out the wrong message that sex education is solely preventing rape and sexual assault. So I think it’s our responsibility to inform the public that sexuality education is more than that and to promote comprehensive sexuality education. 

Some teachers skip the reproduction chapter in high school biology classes. What efforts have you and your team put into training teachers on sexuality pedagogy?

We spend lots of effort in training teachers. Lots of other research teams train their own volunteers to teach sexuality classes. But from a sustainability perspective, I always stand by my belief that schools should have their own teachers to do this job. Many programs inevitably end. It would be problematic if an externally administered sexual education program ends but none of the teachers at schools can continue to provide the students with sexuality education. Who can answer the students’ questions when the volunteer teams have left? That’s why I think it’s really important to have school-based teachers to teach sexuality classes. 

Of course, we’ve encountered lots of obstacles. Some teachers don’t agree with the notion of sexuality education or don’t find it necessary. Others may find it valuable but feel uncomfortable teaching students about it. So we’ve designed lots of workshops for teachers to help them teach comfortably, understand the value of sexuality education, revise their lecture notes and design classes that can engage students.

After our workshops, most teachers find themselves well-equipped to teach sexuality education. Many find that it’s not as hard as they thought. They used to be afraid that young kids are going to be too excited about the subject and the scene will be hard to control. But, if anything, the pupils are extremely absorbed by the subject and pay lots of attention to the class material.

Some teachers have found that the topic of sexuality brings them closer to their students due to its intimate nature. When students find problems in their lives, they are more willing to talk to their teachers and ask them for help. … So we should pay attention to the bright side of sexuality education.

Some teachers also enjoy a better relationship with their own partners. Some teachers used to be too shy to say “I love you” to their spouses, but since sexuality education emphasizes that one should express love and other positive feelings openly, the teachers start to practice these tips in their own homes. Some used to be too shy to hold their partners’ hand in public, but now they find themselves doing it naturally. Some didn’t discuss the topic of sex with their own kids, but now since they teach it at school, they don’t see why they shouldn’t teach their own kids about it.

It’s fair to say that sexuality education has positive effects on teachers themselves.

Speaking of your academic life in the United States, what do you think are the differences between promoting sexuality education in China and in the U.S.?

You don’t need to consider religion when promoting sexuality education in China, but you have to consider it in the States. In states where religion has a greater presence in the population, chastity education might sound more appealing to residents. But since China doesn’t have a state religion, we don’t have that resistance in promoting sexuality education. 

In terms of sexuality education worldwide, I don’t think Americans have done a stellar job in providing sexuality education. But I admit that they indeed have done a great deal of basic research on sexuality education, collected and analyzed lots of useful data and published results for others to use. UNESCO’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education also references lots of research from the States, like the ones by the SIECUS [Sex Information and Education Council of the United States]. This means that we [Chinese scholars] don’t have to start from zero, but can take on work left by scholars from the States and European countries. They lay a solid foundation for us and save us time. Now, when we produce our own results on how to effectively provide sexuality education in China, we’re glad to share our findings with the rest of the world.

What are some difficulties you and your team encountered while promoting sexuality education in China?

A sexuality course at a Chinese kindergarten.

The reason I insist on mandating sexuality courses is that it’s the most effective way to save time and money. If the government could spend some time doing the math, I believe it would support our work without a doubt. Suppose that we don’t provide sufficient sexuality education at schools, and later in the lives of schoolchildren, issues relating to sex and sexuality emerge. The government will need to spend lots of money to solve these problems reactively, which is a great waste. So we’re actually doing them a favor by proactively promoting sexuality education in schools.

Along the way, we encountered obstacles like no class sessions, no teaching faculties, no textbooks and no monitoring and evaluation system available for sexuality education. More broadly speaking, the core issue is still people’s stereotypes and misunderstanding of sexuality education. People still struggle to comprehend the importance of sexuality education and how much it contributes to child development. It makes our work extremely challenging and makes us tread on thin ice, because we have no idea when a new obstacle will pop up and block our way. For example, our two sets of textbooks for kindergartens and elementary schools were all removed from the shelf due to the backlash online, which makes me think that it’s really hard to change people’s stereotypes, which will be hard to alter if we don’t constantly expend effort correcting it.

Your research team has published two sets of textbooks on sexuality education, one for kindergarteners and one for elementary schoolers. Why and how do you offer distinct curriculums for these two groups?

An image taken from the textbook Liu and her team authored.

I started developing a sexuality education curriculum in 2007, and began with an elementary school curriculum. At that time, most available sexuality education courses were designed for middle school, or grades five or six at the youngest. But I think that’s already too late — we should provide sexuality education from Grade 1.  In China, compulsory education starts at Grade 1, [and sexuality education] is fundamental. That’s why we started with elementary schools.

My overall plan is to design a complete collection of sexuality education textbooks for K-12 education and pre K-12 education. We launched our work for kindergarteners in 2013, for middle schools in 2015 and for high schools in 2020. We plan to start working on high school sexuality education in 2021, and that will complete the cycle of sexuality education.

What was your team’s reaction to officials taking down the two sets of textbooks due to public controversy? How did your team navigate the decision?

We were at the scene when they made the decision. There was nothing we could do about it. We had to accept it. And we didn’t receive any official document explaining why we deserved this outcome. I might write a book discussing this incident when I think the right moment has come.

Back in 2011, you published an interesting article on Chinese parents’ perspectives on adolescent sexuality education. What roles do you think Chinese parents should play in sexuality education in 2020?

Though my main focus is sexuality education in schools,  at-home education is equally important, especially because children spend the first 1,000 days of their lives at home. So I believe parents play an indispensable role in pre-school sexuality education.

When we provide sexuality education at schools, we can’t make any progress without support from the parents. One of the main reasons why our textbooks were taken down is that one parent found some of the content inappropriate and worthy of censorship. Though 99.9 percent of the parents are okay with the textbooks, we have to retract them when one objection appears. 

I would say sometimes parents have a tendency to cross the line. They are supposed to perform their duty at home rather than intervene in school business, which is not right. Most parents are not professionals in the field of education, so they should leave the work to the professionals. Unfortunately, these interventions are quite common, especially in sexuality education. So even though some schools are willing to include sexuality education into their curriculum, they hesitate and are afraid of the pushback from parents. For us, getting parental support is one of our priorities. As long as the schools express their concerns, we are willing to provide workshops for parents as well

We held lots of online seminars to help parents discuss the topic of sex with their kids at home, but I still feel like what we have done seems like a drop in the bucket. We need to educate a whole generation of parents on teaching sex education at home. When this generation of kids becomes parents, they will know how to talk about sex openly and candidly with their children. I place my hope on them. 

This interview was conducted in Chinese and has been edited for length and clarity.

Cover photo by cottonbro from Pexels; remaining images provided by Dr. Liu