Officially, China's Ministry of Education introduced sex education in schools back in 1988; it followed up with an HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum in 2003. But the existence of these guidelines would come as a surprise to most Chinese citizens.
Jerry Tseng, a friend who works in finance in Beijing, remembers his school's sex-ed lesson well, but not for what he learned. That day, Tseng said, his teacher forced an assistant—who until then had not taught a single lesson—to lead the class. The younger instructor stood in front of the students red with embarrassment, unable to broach the subject. Eventually, the students were told to read the chapter themselves. This was the pedagogical method favored by many teachers; the dozen or so Chinese people I asked about this all had similar stories.
Today in Beijing, schools offer sex ed in junior high, but there's no standard for what should be taught or how, and teachers have little incentive to emphasize the subject. After all, safe sex isn't going to show up on the national university entrance exam that students spend years cramming for.
Broadly speaking, students learn about reproductive anatomy. They learn they're not supposed to have sex, and that if they do, they must take precautions. And that's that—no guidance about which precautions.
"There's nothing from the schools about relationships. Nothing about pregnancy," said Lily Liu, who heads the China operations of Marie Stopes International, an NGO that runs reproductive health clinics. Condoms? Liu laughed. "No condoms, of course," she said.
People like Liu are trying to change the situation. But as with many things in China, new ideas battle traditional values, as I learned when I visited Zhang Meimei, a professor who runs the sex education research center at Capital Normal University.
Two years ago, Zhang launched a sex-ed camp for fifth- and sixth-graders. The kids played games and watched cartoons about puberty. The professor dug around in her office and pulled out two large posters; each featured a simple line drawing of a boy's or girl's body, with anatomy properly labeled. "The kids were very happy to learn," said Zhang. "They weren't embarrassed."
A few minutes into our conversation, though, we were in very traditional territory. Zhang, who also trains instructors to teach sex ed, was telling me about junior high schoolers learning "how to be a man and how to be a woman" in sex ed classes. "Some girls want to wear boy's clothing. And a lot of boys are too feminine," said Zhang. I wondered whether she saw the contradiction between promoting traditional gender roles and teaching sex education. Would a girl who's taught to be soft and quiet be able to demand that her boyfriend use a condom? Would a girl who insists on using birth control be perceived as a "proper" woman?
The following week, I took the subway to Wudaokou, which is akin to Harvard Square—cafes, hordes of bright students, opinionated homeless people, and, rare for China, street musicians.
At a popular McDonald's, I sat down with Sisi Liu, a sophomore majoring in journalism at Tsinghua University, a school often referred to as China's MIT. She had just come from a documentary about democracy in rural villages, and though it was pouring rain outside, she was dry in a yellow summer dress.
Before Liu arrived at Tsinghua—as she said, "before I knew anything"—she had intended to stay a virgin until marriage. In high school, she had been shocked when a friend announced her intention to have sex during her freshman year in college. These days, Liu's attitude is a bit more Woodstock, a bit less Confucius. "We're all adults," she said. "If it happens, then it's very natural."
Liu told me that a lot of "love hotels" in the area cater to students, offering privacy for about $30 a night. Another person at the table expressed surprise—she hadn't heard of them when she studied at Tsinghua just a few years earlier.
As a student at one of China's best universities, Liu enjoys many advantages. One is that she attended a sex ed workshop during freshman orientation, where she practiced putting a condom on a banana.
Liu and her college friends watch Sex and the City, which continues to be enormously popular in China. "At first we liked Miranda," she said. "But by the end, we liked Samantha the most. She controlled her life and showed that girls could be independent."
As I walked downstairs to leave the McDonald's, two university students caught my eye. They were in their own world, madly making out in their booth.