Between Gender Stereotypes and Dogma

By Benjamin Cheah

The recent controversy over Focus on The Family Singapore’s sexuality education programme is leaving me conflicted. On one hand, I’m not enamoured of FotF’s material. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of sitting through one of their presentations, which attempted to portray viewing pornography as the first step to murder and violent crime. From what little I have seen of their material since, they are still pushing the agenda established by their overly Dominionist Christian leadership in the United States.

On the other hand, the feminist/liberal response to FotF also does not ring true to me. Agatha Tan, the originator of the controversy, claims that FotF promotes rape culture by teaching boys that no means yes. Rape culture, as I have debunked again and again, does not exist. Rape is neither normalised nor accepted in society, sexual assault is still treated as a horrendous crime, and rape is not commonplace. Further, this approach assumes that boys lack the intelligence to understand what nonsense looks like; that they are not held back by conscience, laws and the forces of the state; and that the only thing stopping men from becoming rapists is Right Thought and Right Education. Promulgated by self-proclaimed experts and other political dogmatists, of course.

A veritable flood of opinions is only confusing the issue. One commentator says that men are indeed visual creatures and women are more socially sensitive; another claims the study that shows the former is not legitimate and that any differences between sexes is simply a matter of generalisation. A woman thinks Tan is being childish because she recognises female behaviour as described in FotF’s material in herself; another woman thinks FotF is being insulting to all females. There is little space left for the truth, and even less for people to excavate it from the noise.

FotF’s material is based on dogma, but countering dogma with dogma still begets dogma. Likewise, FoF’s materials do portray stereotypes, but stereotypes have a grain of truth.

I have known men who are visually oriented and say exactly what is on their mind. I have known women who dress up their intent with fancy words and expect people to recognise that they want compliments without looking needy. I have known men so hungry for status and respect they tolerate no dissent. I have known women so concerned with status and being in line with their peers that they tolerate no one with differing views and hound such people incessantly .

I have also known quiet men who are touch-oriented. Women who speak exactly what is on their mind. Men who are truly unconcerned with social hierarchy. Women who can respect people with opposing views without agreeing with them.

Humanity is complex. Reducing people to absolute statements, either through well-known stereotypes or dogmatic pronouncements disguised as political correctness, blots out the identities and experiences of each and every human, greying out the multihued nature of humanity.

Everybody is different. But everybody is also human.

Principles, not dogma

There is great social good in teaching teenagers about sexuality and healthy relationships. However, public policy approach would by necessity require a one-size-fit-all solution, since attempting to administer such a program to every individual — indeed, every possible identity group — is going to be hideously expensive and time-consuming to administer relative to a universal approach. Conversely, private vendors are likely to provide advice tailored only to their target audience — meaning they are likely to push unwanted, unneeded or unnecessary advice to people outside that target audience. FotF is resounding evidence of this.

The solution to this lies in the roots of the problem: a public-private approach. The public sector — either through a formalised curriculum or contracting approved vendors — could teach a set of guidelines applicable to all people. People of specific identity groups — queer, Christian, female, etc. — can then seek out customised material specific to their needs from private players.

A public sector curriculum would by necessity be secular; age-appropriate; applicable to all people regardless of race, religion, culture or sexuality; based on empirical studies and good sense; and free from private interests. This points towards teaching principles to youths. These principles should include honest and open communications, integrity in behaviour, negotiating boundaries, keeping yourself safe while dating someone, respect and empathy. These are life skills everybody, regardless of biology or preferences, can learn and apply. Fortuitously, with the resources at hand it is also easier for the state to deliver such a broad program across Singapore (or, in fact, any state) than a single private player.

Private players would be able to supplement this approach with their own curriculum. For instance, an organisation may develop a program specifically for girls, another may want to conduct a workshop for QUILTBAG people, a third may focus on Muslims in particular, and so on. These organisations don’t need to be for-profit either; this could be NGOs, religious institutions, or volunteer groups. Neither do they have to be physical; I would expect these organisations to promote themselves and their material through Facebook, websites and elsewhere. With very rare exceptions I don’t see these private workshops being held in public schools — except, perhaps, as after-school activities, subject to approval and vetting. I think it’s going to be impossible for the government to regulate such curricula to the same degree of rigour as a universal curriculum, especially in niche areas where regulators have little to no practical experience. Perhaps a better approach would be to have a sanctioned body or bodies provide recommendations or seals of approval, indicating that certain organisations meet specific standards.

It’s time to take a step away from Focus on the Family. it is a symptom, not the disease. Instead of simply attempting to shout down the dogma of the day, the people and the state should start thinking about how to reform sexuality and relationship education to truly meet the needs of youths.

This post was first published over at the blog of Benjamin Cheah on 15 October 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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