The urgent need for reforms to sex education in Hong Kong

April 11, 2024 01:15

Nearly one in every four university students (23%) in Hong Kong has been sexually harassed, according to a 2019 report published by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). A 2019 study found that local secondary school students possessed inadequate knowledge about sexually transmitted infections, while an earlier study in 2016 discovered that sexually active individuals in Hong Kong had higher rates of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia trachomatis than similarly developed countries including the United Kingdom, United States and China. Furthermore, a 2021 survey by the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong found that students’ sexual knowledge amongst students was unsatisfactory, with Form Three to Six students only scoring an average of 8 correct answers out of 12 key questions regarding conception, sexually transmissible infections (STI) and HIV/AIDS. This displays a worrying phenomenon: Hong Kong’s teenagers are woefully undereducated on issues of sex.

According to a comprehensive report by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) published in November 2022, the present state reflects a severe lack of formal guidelines, which merits taking seriously by both the Education Bureau and private schools. The report surveyed local secondary schools in Hong Kong on sexuality education, defined by UNESCO as ‘a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality,’ and found that 13.8 percent of schools did not teach sex education in class at all, while almost 60 percent of schools did not cover ‘sexually informed consent’.

These statistics are most worrying. Despite ample research and impetus on the part of think tanks, government agencies, social workers, and even parents to push for improved sexuality education, there has been little response from the Hong Kong government. Sex education is taught as a part of the Values Education Curriculum Framework, but there is a dearth of guidelines concerning how long schools should spend teaching sex education. Flexibility in arrangements has given way to a lack of focus, standardization, and excessive leeway afforded to individual schools.

What exactly are the obstacles to improved sexuality education in Hong Kong? Some have argued that teachers often lack the professional training necessary to teach sexuality education properly. This leads to embarrassment and reluctance to teach, which is worsened by the fact that some teachers think this ruins their professional relationship with their students. Others have suggested that the root of the issue lies with significant disagreements within schools or amongst colleagues about the curriculum. For example, it is difficult to cover LGBTQ+ issues in class, as the topic remains ‘controversial’ in Hong Kong and amongst teachers. Faith-based schools may also face pressure to promote abstinence or X from violating scriptural doctrines – striking a balance between freedom of religion and duty to inform is absolutely key.

Then there is the erroneous belief prevents comprehensive sexuality education: that sex education leads to more students engaging in sexual behaviours. This is a fallacy. Teenagers engage in sexual activity regardless of whether schools or parents discuss it; in fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that comprehensive sex education programs have reduced rates of sexual activity. The failure to educate students properly simply results in shame, a fear of reporting sexual violence, and higher rates of sexual assault and coercion.

What are the solutions to this problem? The aforementioned report by the Equal Opportunities Commission provides a comprehensive list of recommendations, split into different stakeholders. Firstly, the government should update guidelines on sex education in schools, stipulating a ‘standardised structure and recommended learning hours’ for sexuality education. The government should also provide adequate subsidies for schools to hire NGOs to provide on-site sexuality education courses, and develop a comprehensive set of teaching materials that are structured, up-to-date, and categorised into different topics and age groups for sexuality education. Secondly, schools should review and revise their own curriculum of sexuality education, to ensure that physiological topics such as healthy relationships, sexual consent, gender equality, and image-based sexual violence are covered. Moreover, schools should set up a designated post of sexuality education coordinator, and mandate professional development training courses for teachers responsible for teaching sexuality education. Support and guidance for parents on teaching sexuality education to their children is also crucial.

Such recommendations are not novel or radical. The EOC report shows that 93.1% of responded schools said they had invited external organisations to teach sexuality education in the 2018/19 school year. This is an encouraging first step and such schools should be commended for taking the initiative. But this is not enough. Sexuality education should be further regulated and enforced by the government to ensure equal teaching across the board.

In the United Kingdom, for example, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) has been a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students since 2022. The Department of Education published statutory guidance, which outlines clearly and in detail what students are expected to know by the end of different stages. Similarly in Australia, sexuality education is included as part of the national Australian Curriculum (AC). The latest revisions include incorporating consent education into the curriculum to educate students about seeking, giving, denying, and negotiating consent, which is relevant to preventing and tackling sexual harassment. Hong Kong would do well to reference other countries’ curricula and incorporate successful elements into our own syllabus.

The government should provide schools with comprehensive teaching materials, covering basic biology and reproduction, as well as key questions on consent, sexual assault, and LGBTQ+ relationships. Students should be tested on their knowledge of contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases, on issues of consent (eg. hypothetical situations on whether assault happened), and on ways to seek help from their school or social worker about sexual issues.

Overall, the Hong Kong government should provide a standardised, comprehensive framework that allows certain flexibility in teaching sex education based on different schools, but with a minimum number of hours and certain mandatory knowledge and topics. As China’s most international and global world city, we can and must do better with our education system.

Sharon Chau is a Rhodes Scholar and Kwok Scholar, and reading her Masters at the University of Oxford. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.