Premarital Sex: Whose burden?
By Guest Contributor (Aaron Ng) on 19 Dec 2006 3:34 PM
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The author, Aaron Ng, is a final-year undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and owner of the blog "Hear Ye! Hear Ye!". He can be reached at aaron(at)aaron-ng.info.

There has been a fair bit of coverage on the issue of pre-marital sex in the Straits Times this year, with almost a dozen articles devoted to the issue. According to the latest Durex global sex survey, the average age of Singaporeans experiencing sex for the first time is 18.4. Considering that the average age of marriage is at least 10 years more, it's a safe assumption that a fair number of young people are engaging in pre-marital sex.

The increase in the number of young people engaging in pre-marital sex has resulted in more abortions, teenage mothers and sexually transmitted infections. According to figures from a Straits Times dated 12 November 2005, in the 5 years prior to 2005, there was a yearly average of 1,500 teenage abortions, 840 teenage mothers and more than 600 teens who contracted sexually transmitted infections. A report (.pdf) by the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports also concluded that teenage sexuality is an area of concern.

Given the social problems brought about by pre-marital sex, the question is not whether something should be done about the issue, but who should be doing something about the issue. Should the burden of educating youths fall onto the parents, or should it fall onto the teachers?

Between the two options, it's a choice between a rock and a hard place. Neither option is simply feasible. Singapore, despite its impressive economic and social growth in forty years since independence, remains a relatively culturally conservative country. Perhaps the youths are more liberal (as evident from the rise in premarital sex), but the parents are unlikely to be. The topic of sex is still considered a relatively taboo topic between many Singaporean parents and children.

Given the conservativeness of Singaporean parents, a state mandated sex education might appear to be a viable solution. However, let's not forget that many of our teachers, being a product of Singapore society, are likely to be culturally conservative as well. If Singaporean parents find it difficult to have a frank discussion with their children on the topic of sex, it is hard to imagine Singaporean teachers having it any easier. In fact, forcing teachers to conduct sex education when they are not comfortable with doing it might further reinforce the taboo towards sex, since it would be very obvious to students that the teacher is uncomfortable with the topic.

However, it has been shown that sex education is the most effective way to combat the ills of premarital sex. A comprehensive report (.pdf) on sex education in Europe released a few days ago has provided strong evidence that school-based sex education has resulted in delayed sex or reduced the number of sex partners among youths. In particular, the Netherlands have a successful track record of sex education since the 1970s. Its success is the result of a strong school-based sex education and parental education.

The Dutch education system took a comprehensive approach to sex education, focusing on biological information, values, attitudes, communications and negotiation skills. Dutch parents take a very pragmatic approach to educating their children because they recognize that their children are going to have sex anyway, therefore, they think it is better to talk about the responsibilities of having sex, rather than to be in denial.

The Dutch media has also played a role in creating an open dialogue on sex education. In the 1990s, there was a prime time talk show in which a leading Dutch pop star would discuss sexuality.

The results of the Dutch sex education programme are relatively low rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections compared to other European countries (.pdf). Since the Dutch model has proven to be a success story in sex education, it would perhaps be instructive to compare our current system with the Dutch model to see where we are falling short.

But we need to proceed carefully: although the Dutch model is a successful model, the existence of cultural difference between Singapore and Netherlands should be an important consideration in any attempt to replicate their model. The sexual revolution in the 1960s in Netherlands resulted in a more open attitude towards sex. This probably paved the way for a more open approach towards sex education. Singapore, in terms of societal openness towards the topic of sex, is perhaps at the stage whether Netherlands was prior to the 1960s.

Nonetheless, relatively recent research (.pdf) has shown that Dutch sex education is not as "open" as it is made out to be. The research highlighted that Dutch sex education is usually taught within a moral framework, and that the open and liberal sex education classes are usually found in the more socio-economically deprived areas where the youths were already sexually active. This suggests that despite cultural differences, Singapore can learn some important lessons from the Dutch sex education curriculum.

In the interim, what can be done if Singaporean parents and teachers are generally too conservative to educate youths about sex? The answer probably lies in "outsourcing" sex education to groups that are not shy to deal with the topic, such as social services organizations. An example would be Fei Yue Community Services. It offers sex eduation programmes conducted by professionally trained facilitators, who are in a better position to deliver quality sex education as compared to the average parent or teacher.

Needless to say, care should be taken in the selection of community groups to outsource sex education. Some community groups may inherently have certain bias in their conception of sex education. For example, the Catholic faith has a strong aversion towards contraceptive measures. Outsourcing sex education to community groups with certain biases can result in youths not receiving a comprehensive sex education. The sex education curriculum must be spelt out clearly. In fact, the "Growing Years" series produced by the Ministry of education is a good starting point, being rather comprehensive and unbiased in the sexuality topics that are covered.

The mass media in Singapore could also help by being more supportive of sex education through more positive treatment and coverage of the issue. There are existing programmes on radio and magazines such as Teenage and Seventeen that deal with the issue of sex among youths. However, top dailies such as The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and Today, as well as television channels like Channel 5 and Channel 8 should also join in to extend the reach of sex education. While the topic of sex is not exactly taboo in local media, a new form of "taboo" may emerge if the press sensationalizes teenage sex because attention is focused away from serious discussion and education.

These interim measures will help bridge the gulf between the relatively sexually liberal teenagers and their relatively sexually conservative parents and teachers. In the next couple of decades, this interim measure would ideally produce a generation of Singaporeans that are not shy to deal with the topic of sex. These Singaporeans would then be able to teach their children about sex, and future teachers will be able to deal with the topic in the classroom. Singapore would then move closer to the Dutch model where possible, and hopefully, Singapore would be able to replicate the Dutch model's success as well.

Additional Notes:

[1] Aside from the Durex Global sex survey, there are no other information sources known to the author on premarital sexual behaviour among Singaporean youths. The lack of comprehensive statistics is a potential area for research.

[2] The Dutch has some explicit and clinical sex education programmes and materials on the topic of sex. Samples of such materials can be found here.

[3] The author does not know of any existing study with a comparative analysis of Singapore and other countries in terms sex education (.pdf). However, the release of a recent report titled "Sexuality in Europe: A reference guide to policies and practices" would perhaps be an instructive substitute, since Europe itself is divided in terms of socio-economic development and cultural conservativeness. Singapore can possibly be approximated to the UK, which is economically developed but culturally conservative in dealing with the topic of sex (see e.g., this article from Guardian).

[4] Sex education is one of the means towards combating the problems associated with premarital sex. Another possible method is to increase the importance of the family structure in society. This article titled "Lessons in Dutch Mythology: Why teenage pregnancy rates in the Netherlands are so much lower than in the UK" (.pdf) provides an interesting argument on the importance of structural factors.

Many thanks to the panel of writers on the Singapore Angle team for taking the time to provide honest and critical feedback, allowing me to revise and improve my original submission. It was a very fruitful experience.

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1485 words | Categories: Education

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