Secondary school English teacher Bao Tiantian recalls feeling baffled when her principal asked her to attend a sex education training course.
“I’d never heard that sex required education,” the 37-year-old tells Sixth Tone.
Bao is from Kang County — a rural region in China’s northwestern Gansu province, where talk about sex remains firmly taboo.
When Bao attended school, sex ed consisted of a single biology class in which the instructor was supposed to explain menstruation and some basic anatomy. Even then, her teacher opted not to speak at all during the lesson, she says.
“When the day finally came, the teacher just let us read the texts by ourselves,” says Bao.
But the English teacher’s outlook has transformed since she took the sex ed course — organized by the Chinese nonprofit You & Me — in 2018.
The formerly straight-laced Bao has become a tireless promoter of modern sex education, one of a growing number of rural educators working to teach children about the birds and the bees.
Sex education has long been neglected by schools across China, but the problem is far worse in rural areas. Lower local living standards, traditional social attitudes, demographic dislocation, and a lack of educational resources have made it difficult for teachers to introduce a more comprehensive curriculum.
In Gansu — the province where Bao lives — more than 70% of junior high school students haven’t received any form of sex education, according to a 2018 study. Most of those who have are only given a handful of classes, and even the students who have received the most sex education show little understanding of issues such as gender violence, homosexuality, AIDS, contraception, and abortion, the researchers found.
But the situation is slowly starting to change as forward-thinking teachers work with charities to promote new sex education programs at their schools.
You & Me has trained 67 educators in Gansu so far, who have given sex ed classes to more than 26,000 students in rural areas. It’s currently working to add another 20 schools to its network.
Convincing schools to introduce You & Me’s curriculum, however, can be a challenge. The course — with its modules on contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual violence — can appear jarring to many from more conservative communities.
After finishing her training, it took Bao a few weeks to summon the courage to start teaching the lessons. When she did, her colleagues began referring to her teasingly as the school’s “sex teacher.”
Eventually, the school agreed to incorporate the sex ed content into Bao’s weekly psychological health classes, to avoid raising too many eyebrows.
The sex ed course has continued, however, and today over 800 students take Bao’s classes. The success appears to be largely down to the persistence of the school’s principal — Wang Haizhi — who has been an enthusiastic champion of the initiative from the start.
When Bao first began teaching the course, Wang made sure every member of the faculty understood that the school considered the “sexual health” classes essential and compulsory.
“I think sex is a science that students will have to deal with for the rest of their lives,” says Wang. “They should have a good command of it.”
Before the classes started, Wang sent a note to all the students’ parents informing them about the school’s plans. He stressed that sex education can help minors protect themselves from sexual harassment and assault.
“Parents understand that it’s good for their children’s safety, so no one said no to it,” says Wang.
Safety is an issue that appears to resonate in rural China. Studies suggest that teenagers from the countryside are more sexually active than their peers in the cities. They’re also more likely to experience multiple unwanted pregnancies, as the phenomenon is more common among adolescents from lower-income regions — which tend to be rural.
Though more sexual assaults on minors are reported in urban areas, experts argue the data fails to capturethe scale of abuse in the countryside, where incidents often go undetected.
Liu Yu, a biology teacher at a junior high school in Kang County, is acutely aware of how a lack of sexual knowledge can leave rural kids vulnerable.
The 42-year-old started working with You & Me in 2017, after witnessing firsthand the psychological scars a childhood sexual assault had left on one of his students.
A few months previously, Liu had given a lecture on anatomy that greatly upset one of his 15-year-old students. It was only later he found out why: The girl had been abused by her uncle in the fourth grade, but hadn’t understood what he’d done to her until that moment.
“She’d had no clue what had happened,” Liu tells Sixth Tone. “But after learning about the sexual organs in biology, it hit her.”
Soon after, the student dropped out of school, worried her classmates would discover her secret and judge her. Even now, Liu sighs when he recalls the incident, saying things could have turned out so differently.
“If back then she’d received proper sex education and some psychological guidance, it would have had some positive impact on her,” he says. “Maybe she could have at least stayed in school and continued studying.”
Liu hopes introducing You & Me’s sex education program to his school can help students in similar situations in the future. Luckily, the school and the students’ parents have been supportive, he says.
According to Bao, parents aren’t usually the main obstacle to introducing sex ed in rural Gansu. A huge number of parents work in the cities to earn a better wage, leaving their children behind in their hometowns, which often leaves the families quite disconnected.
“Most kids don’t communicate with their parents about what they study at school,” says Bao. “The chances are even slimmer that they’d share it with their grandparents, who they live with.”
The large number of left-behind children in rural areas, meanwhile, makes sex education even more vital, according to Liu. Though families in Gansu tend to be fiercely opposed to children dating — considering it as dangerous as “fierce floods and savage beasts” — the parents aren’t there to keep an eye on them.
“Sex is a human instinct and it’s almost impossible for adults to control teenagers’ sexual urges,” he says. “We can only educate them on how to respect others and avoid early pregnancies.”
But spreading sex ed to more rural schools remains a challenge, especially given the lack of financial and policy support from the government.
For Bao, the key is convincing more school principals to support the initiative. After completing the course at You & Me, she heard that several teachers had been unable to introduce the classes at their schools due to opposition from their bosses.
“The principals didn’t participate themselves and didn’t know what the course was really about,” says Bao.
Zhang Yaohua, program manager at You & Me, meanwhile, is working to overcome the lack of teachers in rural areas.
Since 2016, the organization has been recruiting college students as volunteer instructors, and then sending them to underserved communities across China. Last year, over 900 trained You & Me volunteers gave sex education courses to nearly 24,000 students in 16 Chinese provinces.
Jiang Yulin, a biology major at a college in the southwestern Sichuan province, signed up as a You & Me volunteer in the summer of 2018, traveling the countryside to give sex ed classes to schoolchildren in the third to fifth grades.
“We should learn from an early age that these things shouldn’t be taboo, nor unspeakable,” says Jiang.
Jiang spent two half-days teaching around 20 students the differences between boys and girls, sexual organs, and how to protect themselves. Many of the kids lived with their grandparents, who were happy for the volunteers to provide some free teaching and child care, he says.
“They simply feel it’s a good thing that their children can learn things in class, even if they don’t understand what a sex education course is,” says Jiang.
The first class was chaotic, Jiang recalls. Some students covered their eyes, while others heckled. But they learned quickly.
“They were able to distinguish the internal and external genitalia so clearly, they all answered correctly in unison that afternoon,” he says. “I was surprised.”
The program, however, proved to be a flash in the pan. When Jiang’s classes ended, the principal of the school he’d been serving told him “the sex education course is a good course.” Yet after the college students left, the school didn’t continue teaching sex ed on their own.
Despite these setbacks, Zhang, the program manager, remains upbeat about the future of You & Me. The nonprofit is continuing to recruit new student volunteers. It’s also expanding into online education by providing sex ed lessons via video call.
Wang, the principal, says he wishes the local government would offer more recognition to sex education. One day, he hopes the education bureau will make sex ed a compulsory subject, like math and English.
“Without that (government support), it’s hard to continue such education in rural areas,” he says.
Bao’s passion for sex ed, meanwhile, continues to grow. In addition to her classes at school, she’s started giving online lectures for You & Me, and she’s already teaching her sons — 5 years old and 9 months old, respectively — the basics.
This way, she hopes today’s students will grow up more comfortable and confident in their bodies than she was as a child.
“I’ve noticed that both boys and girls are more comfortable about menstruation,” says Bao. “When I was in junior high school, I felt it was so shameful. I didn’t even dare to go to the toilet at school.”
Contributions: Wu Ziyi
This article was published on Sixth Tone.