Sexuality Education: A Contest of Worldviews and Values

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Image: Designer491 | iStockphoto

In recent years, discussion about Singapore’s sexuality education in public Ministry of Education, (MOE) schools has intensified.

Fundamentally, the debate is between two approaches to sexuality education. One approach is what some might call a “values-based”, “abstinence-only” or ”sexual risk avoidance (SRA)” approach. The other approach has adopted a ‘sexual risk reduction (SRR) approach’, choosing monickers such as ‘science-oriented comprehensive curriculum’, or ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)’.

While some might pit this as a flashpoint between religion and science or subjective values VS scientific objectivity, it is perhaps not an accurate view of the conflict. 

Both camps utilise ‘science’ and various pieces of evidence to back up their pedagogy and offered content. While much can be debated about the science and evidence, the biggest dividing line is in the kind of values each approach seeks to impart or champion. The entire debate over sexuality education is, in fact, a contestation between completely different worldviews and their respective values.

It is crucial to understand one thing. The debate over the two approaches of sex-ed programmes in public schools is a debate over the kind of values that MOE should propagate. It allows parents, who are primary stakeholders in this debate, to consider the stakes and approaches more thoroughly and seriously consider their own role in their child’s sexuality education.

The Approaches and Their Values

Much is available online about the various SRA or SRR programmes. Depending on which site one visits, the presentation of ‘evidence’ for the effectiveness of SRA or SRR and the harms of the other will differ. Parsing the data, Regardless believes it is more helpful for us to zoom out to understand the two approaches through the beliefs that drive them, and the values they seek to impart.

Here’s a quick summary we’ve developed of the two approaches where we examine their foci, values, and views on matters relating to sexuality and gender identity.

Worldview behind
Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) model
Worldview behind
Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) model
Common Names• Abstinence Education
• Sexual Responsibility
• Teen Pregnancy Prevention
• Comprehensive Sexuality Education
Core Values/Focus• Long-term Human flourishing.
• Personal Stewardship/Responsibility
• Complementarity between the two sexes.
• Prevention/Avoidance better than risk reduction.
• Human agency, Personal (sexual/gender) expression, Individuality.
• Sexual Pleasure and Risk Reduction.
• Consent as supreme sexual ethic.
• Risk-reduction more realistic than prevention/avoidance.
View of Teens/Students• Sees youth as beings that are capable of exercising restraint from sexual experimentation for greater purposes.
• People to be nurtured into sexually responsible ‘society-perpetuators’ (i.e. form stable families and have children).
• Sees youth as sexual beings that will likely sexually experiment or fail to remain chaste before marriage.
• People to be nurtured into activists to ‘fight for SOGI and abortion rights’.
View of Abstinence• Taught as an ideal – a core value.
• Portrayed as realistic and the wiser choice for teens to make for the sake of their long-term flourishing.
• Taught only as another method of risk reduction.
• Not ideal and portrayed as ‘unrealistic’.
View of Marriage
• Comprehensive – consent, commitment and a safe structure to have children in.
• Children are seen positively and couples remain open to the possibility of having and raising children.
• Marriages are oriented to be for both the couple and children.
• Soul-mate model – consent and commitment are all that matters.
• Children are optional and can even be considered a liability which can be fixed with abortion.
• Marriages are oriented to be mainly a vehicle for the adult’s happiness.
View of sexual experimentation• Explicitly discourages sexual experimentation.
• Champions personal responsibility and benefits of being non-sexually experimental.
• Sexual experimentation and activity outside of marriage seen as damaging and morally wrong.
• Expects teens will sexually experiment.
• Emphasises that it is a human right to sexually explore/experiment.
• Holds there’s nothing inherently wrong with being sexually active and experimental.
View of Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity (SOGI)• Heteronormative.
• Two sexes are complementary.
• Holds that gender corresponds with a person’s biological sex and is binary.
• Heteronormativity is wrong.
• No essential complementarity between the two sexes.
• Holds that gender exists on a spectrum and need not be related to biological sex.
View of non-exclusive and/or non-heterosexual sexual activity
• Holds that sexual activities are not all equal. They differ morally and in terms of health risks.
• Differentiates sexual activity by its risks, and emphasises the risks and harms of departing from heterosexual monogamy.
• All sexual activities as equal and undifferentiated.
• Homosexual sexual activity is viewed as normal and/or moral. Tends to downplay the risks.
View of Consent• Consent is not the main thing that makes an act alright.
• Emphasises how to say no and to respect no as an answer.
• Consent is the main thing that makes an act alright.
• Holds that by self-assessment, one determines when they are ready to say yes to sex, and to take no as an answer.
View of contraceptives• Contraceptives viewed as a secondary method of protection from sexual risks.
• Primary method is abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage.
• Tends to downplay its efficacies.
• As primary method of protection that eliminates sexual risks.
• Tends to downplay its failures.
View of abortion• Abortion as a risky procedure that has ethical consequences.
• Avoids speaking of it as something positive.
• Abortion as a solution to a problem (unwanted pregnancy).
• Tends to downplay its risks and negative consequences.
• Champions pro-abortion laws.
View of pornography• Holds that pornography is inherently wrong.
• All pornography/sexually explicit material should be avoided.
• Holds that there is nothing inherently wrong with porn.
• Only some types are wrong/bad and should be avoided.

It is important to note that the above are broad summaries of the two approaches. Every curriculum has its own variation in emphasis and content. Concerned individuals should take some time to ask for and explore what a particular sexuality education programme is offering before forming a firm opinion about that programme.

Key Stakeholders – Parents Need to Step Up

While public schools can seek to offer ‘gold-standard’ sexuality education, studies and surveys show that parents are the most influential and crucial in their children’s sexuality education. MOE takes this view as well, stating, “Parents play the primary role in educating their children and are responsible for teaching and transmitting values on sex and sexuality” as one of its 6 guiding principles of sexuality education.

It is unfortunate that in our fast-paced society, many parents feel ill-equipped and uncomfortable speaking with their children on matters of sexuality. While some suggest that schools should therefore take over the primary role as educators on sexuality, a less mentioned alternative could be considered – education for parents.

Parenting is a difficult and life-long activity that all parents must undertake responsibly, yet parents are rarely taught how to parent. Parenting programmes can benefit parents by equipping them with a wide range of applicable skills that could serve well in strengthening their marriages as well as imparting values to their young. Equipping to engage children in the area of sexuality education would therefore only be a part of a prospective programme for parents. This empowers parents to play their role well as primary sexuality educators for their children, while alleviating the undue stress that is increasingly mounted on the public system.

All things said, sexuality education is never just about sex, gender, or relationships. It involves a way of viewing one’s self, sexuality, gender, and one’s ideals to strive for. No sexuality education programme is void of values. Both seek to impart and champion disparate worldviews replete with their own value systems. Parents, as key stakeholders with the primary responsibility of imparting preferred values and views on sexuality, must step up and be supported to play their roles well in nurturing the next generation of Singaporeans.

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