Viral Letter: Student Concerned About How Sex Education Is Conducted In Her School
By Agatha Tan |
So I wrote an open letter to my principal about last week's sex education:
Dear Dr. Hon,
I am Agatha, a C1 student, and my purpose in writing this open letter to you today is to express my sincere concerns about the MSF “It’s Uncomplicated” workshop all C1 students had to attend on Friday, the 3rd of October.
I attended the workshop with my class in the AVT. Before it started, I flipped through the booklet provided by Focus on the Family (FotF). While sexuality education rarely manages to teach me something that I have not already learnt through past sessions or mainstream media, this booklet was different. From merely glancing through this booklet, I learned a simple yet important lesson: that bigotry is very much alive and it was naïve of me to think I could be safe from it even in school.
While I do have many concerns with regards to this workshop and its content which I consider to be pressing, the most pressing is perhaps that the workshop and booklet actively serve to promote rape culture in school. On the cover page of the booklet itself, it is written, “no means yes?” and “yes means no?” (See attached photo for reference.) The facilitators from FotF neglected to mention that thinking a girl means “yes” when she says “no” is actually completely wrong. Rather, they spent their four hours with us discussing things such as what a girl “really means” when she says something else, as opposed to guys who are “direct” and “always mean what they say” (see photos of pages 20-21). By telling the student population this, FotF sends a dangerous message: that you should always assume that a girl means something else (like “yes”) when really she just means “no”.
Granted, the facilitators did make clear that these gender stereotypes they were promoting were subject to “some exceptions” and that they should be taken lightly, as a sort of joke. While it is reassuring to note that they have apparently realized not everyone fits into their binary model of a nuclear family that in their opinion youth should be actively working towards, not only did they ignore the presence of these people whenever it was inconvenient to them, but they also adopted an extremely damaging attitude.
When someone else tried to raise that the facilitator’s views were too narrow and that they failed to consider, for instance, LGBTQ or polyamorous individuals, he effectively shut her down by saying that her views were not what the audience wanted to listen to and that perhaps she could remain quiet for now and bring it up with him afterwards so they could end the first half of the course for break, which was coming up “very soon”. (He failed to actually ask the audience if we wanted to listen to her opinion and assumed we wholeheartedly accepted his, and break was in fact almost another half hour later.) I personally thought that listening to her opinion was more important than tea break, but what do I know? After all, I am just a “gal”.
The facilitators’ attitude of “jokingly” (I write this with inverted commas because I personally did not believe they were joking) promoting gender stereotypes, in particular, that girls always mean the opposite of what they say as compared to guys who are all very direct, is also extremely damaging in other ways. By endorsing these stereotypes as a tolerable joke, they effectively tell students that these are acceptable views and that it’s perfectly okay to adopt them. This creates a dangerous situation in which questions like “does she mean yes when she says no?” become valid in the male student population’s eyes. Their joking attitude here only serves to reinforce rape culture, since the guys now come to mistakenly understand that girls always mean the opposite when they say anything, including “no”.
Besides this, something else I found distressing was that the workshop seemed to emphasize and enforce traditional gender roles in a relationship. According to FotF, “gals” –as it is written throughout the booklet –are fragile and need guys’ support, and everything a guy does in the relationship is excusable simply because he is a guy and is wired that way. “Gals”, it writes, “need to be loved”, “can be emotional”, “want security”, “[want] you to listen to her problems”, and “[want] to look attractive”, and validation of each of these can only come from the support of a male (see attached photos of pages 25-26). It paints girls as hopelessly dependent beings who are incapable of surviving without guys. This is an extremely sexist view. It simplifies girls to nothing more than what FotF believes they should be like in their relationship with guys.
Yes, I agree that many girls probably feel a need to be loved, and can be emotional, but is this not human, and are these really things that only a guy can solve? Love and emotional support can come from many different people –from families and friends, for instance. Furthermore, that “emotional security” and “closeness” are “far more important to [girls] than financial security” is a questionable and even insulting claim, as is the claim that having a guy listen to a girl’s feelings “automatically solves the problem”. This sexist attitude not only trivializes girls’ problems, but also serves as a foundation for the further boosting of the male ego FotF seems so invested in doing.
This is driven home by the use of the word “gals” throughout the booklet. As a seventeen year-old –someone who should be considered a young adult –I resent the use of this word to describe me. Using the language of twelve year-olds to describe girls makes us seem immature and frivolous and ultimately, easily dismissible. We are not, and should not be portrayed as such.
Guys, on the other hand, are portrayed as guardians who can ultimately do no wrong even when they are evidently doing wrong. “Guys need respect” and “guys are insecure” are just some of the things written in the booklet. “While guys don’t want a girl to pretend to be clueless,” it writes, “they also don’t want a girlfriend that questions their opinions and argues with their decisions all the time”. What this really means is that guys apparently do not want a girl who thinks for herself. I am sure you agree that as a student, being told that I should refrain from having opinions of my own and daring to express them for the sake of keeping a guy’s ego intact is contrary to everything my education has taught me. Similarly, that I should take it upon myself, as a girl, to boost a guy’s ego by showering him with compliments in public because it is my responsibility to do so is equally demeaning.
However, I am also sure you agree that this view about guys does not hold true for everyone. Much as girls have been generalized and simplified in this booklet, so too have guys, and this is fair for neither gender. Yet while the simplification of girls serves to belittle their importance as individuals, the gross simplification of guys serves to boost their egos by perpetuating the message that anything and everything guys do is excusable simply because it is wired into them.
The most alarming thing I read in the booklet provided was that “A guy can’t not want to look” and that what a girl is wearing matters only “lest she become an “eye magnet” that cannot be avoided” (see attached photos of pages 27-28). There are two main problems with this –firstly, that guys are apparently incapable of controlling themselves or their hormones at all, and this is excusable because it’s in their natures, and second, that as a girl, when I dress, I should be thinking of what guys think rather than what I think.
FotF would have you believe that guys are slaves to their hormones and therefore girls should take their unwanted attention in their stride. When a “scantily-clad” girl walks past, for instance, a guy is sure to take notice because “no man with a pulse could have done otherwise” (page 26). It is precisely this kind of attitude that makes mothers warn their daughters not to wear short skirts and walk along the street alone at night, instead of warning their sons to be decent human beings and keep their eyes to themselves instead of appraising the female form like they own it. Certainly, we live in a male dominated world, and for this reason, guys do tend to get away with more. Yet that they do get away with more does not mean that they should. FotF, however, seems to believe that anything a guy does is excusable just because he is a guy. It is worrying that this is the message being imparted to students who are frequently told that they are they the future of the nation.
In my opinion, FotF’s portrayal of guys with regards to their raging hormones not only makes them seem pathetic, but again reduces girls to their role as supporters of their male counterparts. The booklet states that “Many guys feel neither the ability nor the responsibility to stop the sexual progression with [girls]”, and thus they “need your help to protect both of you” (page 28). I felt it disgusting that, for one, FotF has reduced guys to nothing but their hormones, and for two, instead, then, of suggesting that we should cultivate a sense of responsibility in guys with regards to respecting boundaries, FotF suggested that girls therefore need to support guys so that they are able to play heroes and guardians. Why should girls have to learn to help guys play guardian rather than learn how to protect themselves?
It should be noted that in the earlier half of the workshop, the facilitators had shared that in moving the relationship to the next stage, “the guy has to take the lead”. When I asked them why, they were unable to provide an answer beyond “It was just a general statement”. I find it strange that a guy can apparently be expected to take charge when moving the relationship forward, yet should not be expected to take charge in stopping it. Also, FotF does not seem to comprehend the damage one can do by reducing everything to general statements, as I have mentioned above.
After the workshop, I took it upon myself to look up FotF to better understand the views they actively promote. While I cannot say that I was shocked to find out that they are, according to their website, a “global Christian ministry” known for their socially conservative views and agenda, I was disappointed that our sexuality education was tasked to them. I feel that FotF has used sexuality education as an opportunity to further spread their own conservative, “God-ordained” beliefs rather than to educate students on arguably more important things such as safe sex, sexual identity and shared and equal responsibility.
At the JC level, students would have spent at least four years hearing about abstinence and why it is the safest way to go. Using the four hour long workshop to once again preach the value of abstinence seems excessive and unnecessary. If schools are to prepare us for situations we will face in the future, then should we not also be taught about safe sex and contraception and about healthy relationship dynamics?
It is especially unfortunate that FotF was in charge of sexuality education in JC. As young adults trying to figure ourselves out, having a known conservative group preach the non-existence or non-importance of individuals it does not approve of is extremely damaging to the self-discovery process because it invalidates our values and choices and ignores diversity in us as human beings. FotF had no problem using a clip with a gay character when it suited their purposes (a scene from My Best Friend’s Wedding), yet was also quick to denounce any relationship outside of the binary heterosexual norm as “unstable” and “unfavourable”.
Indeed, when the facilitator asked someone why he did not believe in the institution of marriage and he replied that it was in his opinion a flawed social construct due to the limits the government imposes on it, the facilitator was quick to declare that marriage had nothing to do with the government (considering what I now know about FotF, one might then assume that marriage is all about God) and that any unmarried or non-heterosexual couple was effectively participating in an unstable relationship. The quickness and ease with which the facilitator dismissed anyone outside of his limited moral framework was a clear display of bigotry and tells students that acceptance is beyond him. For someone questioning their identity, having someone in a position of authority tell them that they simply did not matter if they were not straight is emotionally destructive.
I do not mean to imply that the school management has to take a supportive position in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, though in my opinion this would be ideal. Yet even so the school has a responsibility to the diverse school population; even if the school is unable and unwilling to provide inclusive sexuality education for students, it has a basic responsibility to ensure that it is a place free of bigotry where students can at least feel safe to study in without fear of being persecuted for who they are or are figuring themselves out to be.
By engaging the services of groups such as FotF to teach sexuality education in school, the management hence indirectly participates in promoting rape culture, tells students that we should conform to traditional gender roles instead of being our own persons, demonstrates that the acceptance of diversity in people is unimportant, and erases minority groups in the student population.
I hope that these concerns will be taken into consideration for future events and workshops.
Agatha Tan (14A10), Hwa Chong Institution
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