China’s Sexual Education Discourse: Unfair, Harmful, and Incomplete


China is a trailblazer on many fronts: millions have benefitted from the large-scale urbanization and industrialization that has created jobs in many niches all over the country.  However, when it comes to sexual education, China lags far behind many developing countries. The lack of openness in discussion about sex in both academic and familial settings has left many young Chinese men and women to their own devices to learn about safe sexual practices. The need for increased dialogue in both the formal classroom setting and the home is clear, as it would enable Chinese youths access to not only formal training in safe sexual practices, but also exposure to the substantial consequences of unprotected sex.

Neither parents nor schools adequately address the topic of sexual education or safe sexual practices, which in turn strands young Chinese students, forcing them to turn to the Internet or friends for information about sex. Shockingly, nearly 88 percent of Chinese youth, when polled in an online survey, responded that they had to learn about sex independently. China Daily, an English-language newspaper published in China, acknowledges that many parents believe “children will know [safe sexual practices] by themselves when they grow up,” and while the publication expresses that this is not the case, it does not instruct parents on how to best educate their children on the consequences of unsafe sex.

One consequence is a high rate of teen pregnancy. Data from China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission puts the yearly number of abortions in China at roughly 13 million, roughly 1 per 100 people. This number itself is most likely low, as these statistics do not take into account unlicensed abortions performed in poorer, more rural parts of the country. The lack of education about birth control options is evident through a survey published by the China World Contraception Day Organization, which showed that only 1.2 percent of Chinese women take oral contraceptives and that roughly 68 percent of Chinese women were not clear about the differences between oral contraceptives and the morning-after pill.

Zhao Yuanyou, a 23-year-old student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, remembers that in his native province of Shaanxi, local TV station channels aired more commercials for abortion clinics than condom brands. He described that on the more local level, “officials might think condom commercials on TV demonstrate young people are having sex, which many consider bad.” The main reason for the prevalence of the abortion clinic commercials is due to the issue that “girls from high school and university don’t know how to deal with the pregnancy, so they borrow some money and go to the abortion clinic because the people in these advertisements tell the girls they can solve their problem quickly and cheaply,” Zhao describes. The responsibility falls on the parents of the young adults and the government of China more broadly to instill mandatory sexual education requirements in schools. Furthermore, enforcement of this requirement must be pursued, lest more and more Chinese youths be subjected to a state of sexual ignorance that is, on the whole, not their fault.

Looking forward to the future of sexual education in China, there is great reason to be optimistic about increased discussion of sexual education. With the proliferation of WeChat and Sina Weibo, popular messaging and microblogging platforms, respectively, ordinary Chinese citizens of all ages are able to follow social developments, both domestically and internationally. In this way, ordinary citizens have a platform to voice their grievances over policy inadequacies.

In a similar vein, Li Yinhe, a prominent sociologist, sexologist, and member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has a large following on her blog where she regularly posts about topics relating to sexuality in China. She has garnered a large following of Chinese youths, many of them young women. This kind of social media development is very positive, as it increases awareness and discussion about issues related to sexual education and sexual health, but it is no way enough. Perhaps most encouragingly, when asked about the future of sexual education in China, Zhao responded, grinning slightly, “It’s hard to say, but when I have children, my generation and I will be able to teach our children about these [sexual education] things and make a lot of progress. We don’t want the mistakes of the past to be passed on to the next generation.”

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