HONG KONG - When university student Zack Lee was younger, he received no sexual education at his Christian high school. The reproductive system was explained in science class, but further questions from students were not answered by the teacher.
“I didn’t have any sex education class during second school, and they didn’t teach me anything,” Lee said. “Most of my schoolmates are just like me, didn’t know how to use condoms and didn’t know how to have sex with girls.”
Instead he and his friends resorted to the internet to answer most of his questions, a common phenomenon in Hong Kong where standards of sex-ed can vary dramatically between schools.
Not a mandatory subject
Sex-ed is not taught as a mandatory subject in Hong Kong schools but is instead integrated into a curriculum on moral and civic education, the Education Bureau said by email, intended to help students learn “whole-person development to cope with challenges of the 21st century.”
The Education Bureau said that rather than focus on simply the “physiological aspect” of sex-ed, it also aims to teach students about “personal growth and development, making friends, dating, marriage and gender equality.” In practice however, results can vary with schools left to determine for themselves how to teach sex-ed.
The mixed results have raised concerns among rights groups as well as the Department of Health and the Hong Kong Family Planning Association, according to a study by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
Students on average receive around three hours of sex education a year, according to legislative council survey. During that time 60 percent of students learn about HIV prevention while 80 percent learn how to use a condom, according to the latest 2012 survey of 134 schools by LegCo.
“What we see is that the situation is very uneven. Some schools may have comprehensive sex education with enough hours but some schools just have none, they don’t have any sex education,” said Julia Sun, the director of Sticky Rice Love, an online forum for sex-ed issues.
Similar to much of Asia, the city’s cultural attitudes toward sex also veer toward conservative, with Sticky Rice’s website observing that “Hong Kong people seldom talk about sex” and conversations are often surrounded by shame and guilt.
Organizations like Sticky Rice are often invited into schools to give sex-ed talks, but what they are allowed to discuss often varies from government guidelines.
Many schools are eager to talk about how to prevent pregnancy, with a particular emphasis on abstinence, Sun said, but skip important lessons like emotional development, communication and consent. LGBT issues and gender identity are also still controversial topics, she said.
The Hong Kong Aids Foundation, which also works with schools, said many were reluctant to allow the organization to distribute condoms, even at the university level.
?High educational standards
The mixed track record is at odds with Hong Kong’s otherwise high educational standards within the region.
Hong Kong secondary school students ranked second in the world for math and reading in a 2015 global study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, while its universities are regarded as some of the best in Asia.
Its regional rivals Singapore and Taiwan, which have similar levels of economic development, also have mandatory sex-ed programs. Mongolia, while still a developing country, also stands out regionally for its advanced sex-ed program, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Instead, Hong Kong has more in common with neighboring China, where sex-ed is also not mandatory and often limited to discussion of physiology and HIV prevention, without discussing greater issues of gender and sexuality, according to Jo Sauvarin, adviser on Adolescents and Youth at the UNPFA.
Prominent role of religion
Such an approach is often found across Asia, which as a region lags behind much of Africa and Latin America, where many countries ramped up sex-ed years ago in response to local HIV epidemics, Sauvarin said.
The cautious approach of many Hong Kong schools may in part be because of the prominent role religious organizations have played in educating Hong Kong youth.
Over half of all students attend schools with some kind of religious affiliation, varying from Christian to Buddhist to Sikh, according to government data. Many local organizations also point to the additionally conservative influence of Confucian thinking in Hong Kong’s education system.
In such a climate, pushback can also come from parents, who fear sex-ed might encourage their children to experiment, according to local groups. Sauvarin said, however, that simply telling them not to have sex or limiting their education can have the opposite desired effect.
“A number of programs in our region would focus more on those elements [like abstinence] and so they don’t have any effect on adolescent pregnancy or reduction of HIV if you just tell young people don’t have sex without giving them the information that they need,” she said. “In fact, in contrast programs that have comprehensive sexuality education actually delay the initiation of sex.”