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.
HIV is so rampant that some colleges have even begun stocking HIV testing kits in vending machines alongside packets of instant noodles and soda.
The huge spikes in HIV infections can largely be traced to sexual transmission and low condom usage. A 2014 survey found only 38 percent of sexually active college students use condoms, while another survey found that half of people 15 to 24 years old did not use any form of birth control in their first sexual encounter.
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.
But strictly avoiding discussions on sex does not mean that people in the most populous country in the world are not having it. Instead, Chinese youths are experimenting and discovering things the hard way, and many young women are bearing the consequences.
According to Chinese government statistics, a staggering 23 million women terminate unplanned pregnancies each year. In comparison, the United States reported 664,435 abortions in 2013, the latest year data was available. In China, 62 percent of women who underwent the procedure were between 20 and 29 years old, and in some areas, there has been a 30 percent increase in teens getting abortions.
“Many young women who had abortions in our clinics said they did not know what a condom looks like,” said Guo Min, a reproductive health expert in China with Marie Stopes International.
The women who opt for abortions “are between 13 and 24 years old and have never received formal sex education and have not heard of oral contraceptives or female condoms before,” she explained.
Refusing to educate children about sex has also left them vulnerable to abuse. A study found that 9.5 percent of Chinese girls and 8 percent of boys have been sexually abused. In a country of nearly 1.4 billion, that means as many as 25 million children under 18 could be victims of abuse.
“No one told these students about their bodies, sex, or how to protect themselves from harm,” said Fei Yunxia, a sex educator in China with the Girls’ Protection Foundation. “It is just hard to get support from schools or education authorities. They think the topic is ‘sensitive’ or ‘unspeakable,’ and others do not think sexual abuse deserves special attention.”
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.
While the textbook has generated a heated debate, it is not widely used. A local education official said the textbooks were not part of official school teaching materials. According to the book’s publisher, 18 primary schools in Beijing have used the books, which were released in 2010.
Candid conversations and real education in schools can change attitudes on sex and make it safer, but China’s conservative culture prevents such a discussion from ever occurring. Only the authoritarian regime has the power to break this cultural stalemate by mandating a school curriculum that teaches safe sex and healthy attitudes on gender and their bodies.
Until then, China’s youth will continue to pay heavy price – soaring HIV rates, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual abuse – for youthful indiscretions that can easily be made safe.
Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs. He has been published in The Week, Huffington Post, and The Diplomat.