Asia needs more, and better, sex education

·9-min read
Close up of female feet in under the sheets.
(PHOTO: Getty Images)

As a sign that many Asian cultures are changing, recently there have been a number of young Asian women making use of various platforms to speak out about why their countries need more, and better, information about sex.

Let’s talk about sex...

Jasmine King, @ohheymissking, and Charmaine Cheong Shen May, the co-founder of @letsredtalks are both from Malaysia; Sisil from @sisilism is based in Indonesia, and Singapore’s Sara Tang runs @hellosarasense. These four young women are on a mission to improve the understanding of not just sex education, but also to help young Asian women feel more confident and knowledgeable about their own bodies.

“It's important to have sex education that is relatable to us; that takes into consideration our culture and sensitivities, our religion and history, our general identity as Asians/Southeast Asians,” explains King. “There are a lot of sexual health resources out there and while we can depend on the scientific aspects of these resources, we lack the cultural aspect which is in itself a whole array of stigmas and taboos that is unique to us. So, someone who understands these stigmas and taboo is able to unpack it, make sense of it, and share it with us.”

(PHOTO: Jasmine King)
(PHOTO: Jasmine King)

King says that when she was younger she thought it was unusual that sex and women’s bodies were not discussed, and she realised that in her community these topics were surrounded by secrecy. “... There is profound shame and disgust attached to it,” she says.

At age 15, King decided to teach herself about “sex, STI, our bodies and relationships and spoke about the topics openly to my friends”.

Sisil, who goes by one name, experienced the same secrecy as King growing up in Indonesia. “I had experiences in both private and public school but I never had any proper sex education taught in school,” she explains. “When I was a teenager I was struggling to ask about sex. My mum would shut me down and told me: ‘One day, you'll know’ and [then] told me the myths that she believed.”

“I believed I wasn't alone. So, finally stepping out of my comfort zone, after learning so much about sexuality, led me to where I am now. It's about time for individuals to step up and open the conversation about the reality of sex, breaking the taboos and eventually spreading the awareness of sexual health, getting tested [for STIs], and be responsible of our own actions. Why? Because somebody has to start it.”

In 2018, at the age of 18, Charmaine Cheong co-founded RedTalks while at college. RedTalks is a “youth-led organisation that powers to normalise periods, advance sex education and fight period poverty”.

“There is a huge stigma and misconception regarding what sex education is. For many people in Malaysia, the education we receive is minimal and abstinence is highlighted as an effective contraceptive,” explains Cheong. “Many do not know that sex education isn’t telling youths how to have sex but rather provides unbiased facts about matters such as reproduction, anatomy, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and consent.”

“Far too many people, particularly adults, still shy away from speaking to their children on such matters due to the stigma or the fact that they themselves are ill-informed on such matters,” says Cheong. “It is important for those growing up and who are discovering how to manage themselves and the relationships they may have, to learn how to identify what is safe for their sexual and reproductive health.”

(PHOTO: Sara Tang)
(PHOTO: Sara Tang)

Singaporean Sara Tang agrees. Tang, who’s currently based in Hong Kong, runs the podcast Better in Bed, where she discusses her personal stories and experiences about being an Asian woman in Singapore and how it impacted on her understanding of her own sexuality. She is also a certified sex coach.

“In Asian culture, sex is still widely considered taboo. Because of this, people experience a lot of shame and guilt around their sexual behaviour,” explains Tang. “Talking about sexual health with partners, families and health care providers is often a challenge, which prevents people from getting the help and support that they need.”

Tang says that there are few sex-positive voices in Asia and Southeast Asia. “I felt it was important to speak out. It’s important to speak out to educate and inform people on the topics around sexual health and normalise the conversations we have around sex.”

Talking about sex should not be taboo

For all of these women, talking about sex is not prurient. It is about self-knowledge, education, and women’s health. And standing up online about these topics has not been easy.

“I never expected my videos [to go] viral in the beginning but when that happened I [had to] accept lots of negative comments, telling me that I was spreading free sex to the young, a sinner,” explains Sisil. “Since I live in a Muslim majority country, my Instagram account was banned because of a mass-reporting.”

Although Tang says she mostly receives positive feedback, particularly from women, she too has also had negative experiences.

“I occasionally encounter people who make presumptions about my personality and character because of what I do. I suppose a certain amount of slut-shaming comes into play,” says Tang. “Or the presumption that any woman who talks openly about sex must want sex all the time, and be open to sex from anyone. For example, I tend to get more unsolicited dick pics than the average woman on social media, and I did get one piece of hate mail recently from someone that called me a ‘prostitute’.”

King has also experienced unwanted attention from some men: “As a female who speaks about sex openly, I do get messages from men who take advantage of the opportunity to talk to me and send explicit messages and pictures.”

(PHOTO: Charmaine Cheong)
(PHOTO: Charmaine Cheong)

But it’s not all bad either. Tang, King and Cheong have all had positive feedback from people who understand that what they do is about education and helping women with the issues surrounding sexual health, relationships, and self-love. And despite her negative experiences, Sisil has continued to fight on.

“I was about to stop but I know my mission and goals are bigger than my struggle. I acknowledged my stress and I looked back to my original plan,” explains Sisil. “I took a hiatus for a couple of weeks - mostly to think - before I decided to go back online.

I was aware from the beginning that some people would attack me online, but then when the attack actually happened I realised that ‘Oh it's actually only online. In the real world, people still treat me the same’. At that point, I know that I have to have a healthy relationship between the real world and the social media world. So, I'm okay.”

If you are interested in finding out more about the topics of women’s sexual health, and relationships, there are a number of things you can do.

Tang suggests you do your own research and look for a non-profit organisation or interest group that aligns with your personal interests, you can then volunteer your time and skills. You can also follow sex-positive influencers and content creators on social media, and join in the discussions via their communities. The idea is to normalise the topics.

“My underlying theme is always around reassurance,” says Tang. “Because sex is so taboo, people always worry that what they're experiencing isn't normal, and they feel very isolated. If we could talk more openly about sex, people would realise that what they're experiencing is usually pretty common.”

(PHOTO: Sisil)
(PHOTO: Sisil)

Why do we need to talk about sex?

King wants people to realise that sex education is not about how to have sex. “There are more elements to it and it has to be age-appropriate,” she says. She believes that sex education needs to be taught to parents, caregivers, and teachers, so that they can better discuss these issues with children, helping to break the various taboos around the subject that are found across Asia.

“Parents and teachers also tend to put the responsibility of sex ed on each other instead of seeing themselves as one to impart the knowledge. Parents would say it's the teacher's role to educate, whilst teachers would say it's the parent's. I say it's both.

“Both parties are often scared to educate with the fear that they may say something wrong or encourage their children to experiment with sex, but they play such an integral role in making sure that this does not happen by empowering the child on having autonomy on their own bodies and the importance of making informed decisions on their sexuality and sexual health,” says King.

For Sisil, knowledge is power, and an important topic is the issues of STIs.

“I think the awareness about [using] protection and STI testing is very important. What I see most from my followers and my clients is that they're afraid to get tested,” explains Sisil. “They'd rather not know what they have than to deal with it. I always say to be transparent to your partner and be responsible for yourself.”

“In order for people to understand the importance of sexual health education, the first thing that has to go is the stigma that surrounds the entire topic,” says Cheong.

“The presence of stigma prevents discussions or open conversations from taking place between parents, teachers, children and [their] peers and where there is a lack of address in normal conversations all sorts of myths and misconceptions bloom.

“One way to reduce the chances of misinformation is by including the topic of sexual health in education as most change and lessons come from school where children and youths are in a space where questions can be asked, discussed and unraveled through the guidance of a teacher who is well trained on the subject.

“The matter of sexual health needs to stop being whispered about or avoided like a taboo but rather recognised as a part of education that is as necessary as any other subject currently taught in schools.”

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