What’s Unsaid About Comprehensive Sexuality Education

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Comprehensive Sexuality Education: A Mixed Bag of Really Questionable Stuff
Photo: Anna Shvets | Pexels

Sexuality Education is in again. And now a new term is being bandied about – ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education, or CSE.

There was recent public interest following a lecture series by AWARE’s Chief, Ms Corinna Lim, where she pushed for CSE as one of a few suggestions for greater gender equality. Her version of CSE sounded necessary – talking about respect, consent and gender equality. We looked into the term a little and were surprised to see that there’s actually some pushback against this, so we dug more to see why.

CSE is actually quite a well-defined, international term. The United Nations Population Fund describes how CSE is ‘a matter of human rights,’ along with a list of benefits. Other groups also push for CSE, citing studies that claim it reduces rates of sexual activity, risky sexual behaviours, sexually transmitted infections and adolescent pregnancy. AWARE activists, quoted by the local press, have previously recommended Singapore implement CSE in public schools. 

Beyond the broadly accepted goals of CSE, lie finer details that aren’t as well-known. AWARE tried to explain away such details after parents pushed back against their sexuality education in 2009. They were removed as an MOE-approved vendor due to this disagreement. Even now, details of their sexuality education programme can’t be found online. 

What’s available online is the UN’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (the Guidance). As the title suggests, it gives guidance on CSE programmes. Given that it’s a 139-page report, here’s a TL;DR of the key elements. 

Overview

The Guidance describes CSE as ‘Comprehensive, accurate, evidence-informed and age-appropriate information’. Its conceptual framework includes principles maintaining that sexuality is a social construct linked to power. It adds that sexuality refers to the individual/social meanings of interpersonal and sexual relationships, in addition to biological aspects.

Here’s a screenshot from the UNFPA’s Technical Guidance report.

Above are eight key concepts which the Guidance’s CSE covers. They also recommend teaching these in an ‘age-appropriate’ manner. The eight concepts are separated into four age groups each for such “age-appropriate” teaching (5-8 years; 9-12 years;  12-15 years and 15-18+ years). These concepts are therefore targeted at primary and secondary school levels.

As laid out by the Guidance, CSE is founded on a “human rights-based” approach that “involves raising awareness among young people, encouraging them to recognise their own rights, acknowledge and respect the rights of others, and advocate for those whose rights are violated.” It also emphasises “their right to access the information that young people need for effective self-care.”

Details, Details, Details

After diving into the details of the report, certain areas raise eyebrows in light of the “age-appropriate” claims. Here are some of them:

Children age 5-8
(K1 – Pri 2)
– Taught to describe different kinds of families (which includes same-sex and possibly polygamous relationships) and to respect and affirm them [pg. 38]
– Taught that people show love and care for others in different ways, including kissing, hugging, touching and sometimes through sexual behaviours [pg. 71]
Children age 9-12 (Pri 3 – 6)
– Taught to accept that all people should be able to decide if, when and whom to marry (including same-sex couples) [pg. 43]
– Taught to accept transgender identity [pg. 50]
– Taught to describe ways that human beings feel pleasure from physical contact (e.g. kissing, touching, caressing, sexual contact) [pg. 70]
– Taught to communicate and understand different sexual feelings and talk about sexuality in an appropriate way [pg. 70]
– Taught about sexual stimulation and masturbation, and how masturbation does not cause physical or emotional harm [pg. 71]
– Taught to correctly use a condom [pg. 79]
Teens age 12-15 (Pri 6 – Sec 3)
– Taught how close relationships can sometimes become sexual [pg. 41]
– Taught about non-penetrative sexual behaviours that reduce risk of STIs, and can be pleasurable [pg. 72]
– Taught to understand ‘transactional sexual activity’ and its risks [pg. 72] (with no outright prohibitions against such a practice)
– Taught where to acquire condoms and contraceptives locally [pg. 75]
Teens age 15-18+
(Sec 3 – Pre-U)
– Taught to advocate for local and/or national laws that support ‘human rights’ that impact sexual and reproductive health [pg. 47] (human rights includes abortion, age of consent, sexual orientation and gender identity)
– Taught to define homophobia and transphobia, and demonstrate ways to show support for people experiencing homophobia or transphobia [pg. 50]

At least three age groups stated are below Singapore’s age of consent. Yet in two of those age groups, children and teens are taught about sexual behaviours, sexual stimulation and even commercial/transactional sex. 

This is likely to be another tripwire in Singapore if different parents disagree on the content of CSE. Such protests have happened in the US, the UK, and even in Asia. CSE as recommended by Ms Corinna Lim (and the UN) needs to be properly assessed with all its details, and not be accepted fully based on its vague rhetoric.  

As Singaporeans navigate the minefield of cultural diversity, discourse on sexuality education can become inflammatory. We will have to balance the need to improve our current sexuality education to tackle issues of bullying, voyeurism, sexism and the porn pandemic, while scrutinising the more controversial issues with civility. 

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