Salacious or educational, it’s what everyone’s (not) talking about
In an era where Miley Cyrus twerks with abandon at a live awards show aimed at a young audience and Fifty Shades of Grey sets records for the fastest-selling paperback of all-time beating out the likes of JK Rowling and Oprah Winfrey, it’s difficult to imagine a time when people weren’t talking about sex.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that schools were banning critically acclaimed books like The Color Purple for supposedly racy content, MTV refused to air Madonna’s 1990 Justify My Love video and Michael Jackson’s crotch-grabbing dance sequence got censored in his 1991 Black or White video. That very reluctance to talk openly about sex led to Salt-n-Pepa’s social commentary disguised as a hip-hop rap released that same year, Let’s Talk About Sex.
“Let’s talk about sex for now to the people at home or in the crowd / It keeps coming up anyhow / Don’t decoy, avoid, or make void the topic / Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it / Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be / How it was, and of course, how it should be,” they rapped.
Around that time, the number of reported AIDS cases in the United States topped 100,000 for the first time, Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related causes and Magic Johnson announced to the world that he was HIV-positive. So despite what now looks like prudish behavior on the part of those in charge, it wasn’t surprising that people were ready to talk about sex. What was surprising was that it would be an all-girl hip-hop group best known for skin tight lycra and the brazen smash hit cum anthem to sex Push It who would turn out to be the catalyst for social dialog.
Fast forward two decades and 10,000 miles to present-day Vietnam where people are still reluctant to talk about the most taboo of subjects. In English, euphemisms like “the birds and the bees” and matters of the “boudoir” are considered antiquated, almost Victorian. In Vietnamese, talk of “blankets and pillows”, “clouds and rain” and “doing a puzzle” as the kids are calling it (think of the tabs and slots of two interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces), is still considered verboten.
“In my family, we rarely ever talked about sex,” remembers Thang, a 29-year-old IT tech. “My parents never explained anything about it. They were afraid that I would start thinking about it too much and it would affect my schoolwork.”
Quyen, a young accountant, agrees. “School and family clearly influence how young people treat sex. Vietnamese people don’t talk much about it, but the less they talk, the more young people are curious about it and want to try it.”
The question then arises: Whose responsibility is it to educate and open dialog about sex in Vietnam? And is it a matter of what you don’t know that can hurt you?
Sex Ed 101
Sex education in Western countries varies greatly from school to school, ranging from an abstinence-only approach coupled with a clinical presentation of biological facts along with requisite, graphic “scare tactic” photos of various sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to the infamous banana lesson to teach teenagers how to use condoms correctly followed by a distribution of contraceptives.
While sex education is common, even compulsory, in some Western schools, starting as early as kindergarten in the case of Chicago (US) public schools in 2013, in Vietnam, remaining sensitive to the culture means that sex education is addressed quite differently ― if at all.
Typically, Vietnamese public schools have a form of sex education in middle school, often two to three sessions as a part of biology class. “The kids didn’t take it very seriously,” remembers Phu, a high school student in Go Vap. “A guest speaker came for a morning and afternoon session, but it wasn’t compulsory. And not everyone attended. A few got selected from each class. She talked about STIs and HIV / AIDS but didn’t get into any details. Some students never came back for the afternoon class and no one seemed to care.”
Trang, a young professional, recalls, “The boys liked it but the girls were mortified. What they told us about, everyone already knew. There were things we wanted to know about but everyone was too embarrassed to ask.”
A handful of international schools are also stepping in to provide sex education. The Saigon South International School (SSIS) teaches it as part of the Health curriculum, “a factual based curriculum, without judgments,” for grades 6-10, according to Tina Fossgreen, Curriculum Director. Topics include puberty, STIs, and drugs and alcohol (risks involved with their use including sexual risks and choices). The British International School (BIS) also conducts Sex and Relationships Education as part of a wider program of Personal, Social and Health Education, addressing issues such as safe sex practices, contraception, peer pressure, and body image. “The program is comprehensive and age appropriate. Some topics are covered with 17-year-olds that wouldn’t be addressed with 11-year-olds,” says Secondary Head Teacher, Richard Dyer.
An anonymous survey conducted by Oi of 31 Vietnamese teenagers attending both international and local secondary schools in Ho Chi Minh City found that whatever the means of delivery, the message hadn’t quite gotten through to the city’s youth. When asked, “What do you understand by the phrase ‘safe sex’”?, one student replied: “It’s to protect us from temptation”. While the majority of students mentioned using protection to avoid pregnancy, only a few teens added that safe sex should be practiced to avoid contracting STIs. Similarly, the survey showed that many teenagers didn’t know where they could access contraception. One student commented, “I know I can go to the drug store but I think grown-ups won’t let me buy these things”.
The prevailing view “if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist” is still very much a part of Vietnamese culture. Nguyet, a 24-year-old saleswoman, recalls: “My parents just told me to ‘be careful’. But careful of what? That part they never explained. I just remember them falling over themselves trying to grab the remote to change the channel any time a kissing scene came on. And that was until I was 15 or 16.”
Stacey, a Health teacher at SSIS, says: “At parent-teacher conferences I’ve had parents thank me for having these difficult conversations with their children so they don’t need to.”
With local schools mainly focusing on the biology of sex and parents shying away from the issue altogether, youths are often left to their own devices when it comes to sex education. “Young people today usually just get information from friends or the internet. It’s available anywhere, even in the rurals,” says Quyen. However, while Oi’s poll revealed that students relied on the internet as their primary source of information about sex, Dr. Thien Vu Pham with the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP) cautions that “there is so much information on the web, but it’s not complete, accurate or appropriate, especially when Vietnam’s mass media passes along so much misinformation causing youths to go away with the wrong idea”.
Phan Huong Giang, Program Development Manager with Marie Stopes, a leading international NGO in the field of sexual and reproductive health (SRH), adds: “Although the internet has dramatically changed [the level of knowledge on sexual health] over recent years, especially in urban areas, in Vietnamese culture, pre-marital sexual intercourse remains a sensitive issue. Many people, especially young and unmarried women, still do not seek or delay seeking SRH and family planning information and services before they are sexually active.”
Statistics seem to highlight the need for more to be done in the area of educating the nation’s youth. Vietnam’s approximately 300,000 annual teen abortion cases represent the highest adolescent abortion rate in Southeast Asia and the fifth highest in the world. Some news sources cite a number as high as 20 percent of Vietnamese teens having unwanted pregnancies. These numbers come on the heels of the 2010 Survey Assessment of Vietnamese Youth which revealed the mean age at first sex among youths 14–25 had decreased to 18.1 years compared with 19.6 years in a similar survey conducted four years prior.
At a meeting to mark the World Population Day earlier this year, Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Viet Tien cited limited knowledge of reproductive health and an increase in premarital sex as factors contributing towards an increase in the rate of unwanted pregnancy among teens.
Minding the Gap
Undoubtedly, Vietnam’s conservative culture when it comes to sex is one of the obstacles to promoting open dialog. “There is a saying in Vietnam that sex is easy to joke about but hard to talk about, and I think this describes the situation in the country. Everyone enjoys sex but most people are embarrassed to talk about it just like elsewhere,” notes Ian Bromage of the Medical Committee Netherlands-Vietnam (MCNV), an INGO that supports a network of women and children living with HIV in the north of the Vietnam.
This reluctance to address the issues has led to a host of misconceptions about sex. Giang of Marie Stopes lists some of the most common misconceptions she’s come across: abortion reduces fertility; some types of contraception reduce fertility or cause infertility; pregnancy can be avoided by not having an orgasm during sex, avoiding certain positions, using the withdrawal method or douching after sex; and a woman cannot become pregnant following first-time sexual intercourse or during menstruation.
Ian of MCNV adds: “There is still a widespread belief that homosexuality is an illness, or that people living with disability should not have children. Everyone should be able to enjoy healthy and pleasurable sex lives and have the right to raise a family, so it is important that these misconceptions are challenged.”
According to Giang, other obstacles to promoting reproductive health include gender issues (where husbands/partners and sometimes entire families are involved in decisions regarding a woman’s SRH), geography (with very poor and isolated areas experiencing the greatest need) and quality of information and SRH care is inconsistent across the private sector.
According to Marie Stopes, some of the main issues which both government and non-government organizations are trying to overcome involve: a lack of contraception methods due to traditional donors of contraception having pulled out of Vietnam since the nation achieved middle-income status; combating the reluctance to paying for contraception and family planning services which were provided by donors over the last three decades; poor/lack of provision of family planning counseling, particularly post abortion; and limited choice in long-acting family planning methods, with the IUD being the most popular.
But with the combined efforts of government, NGOs and other organizations, there is reason for optimism. “Currently the Law on Family and Marriage is going through a consultative process; the changes proposed to this law are very progressive. What will be important is that people are made aware of their sexual and reproductive rights and how to exercise them. This will require communication and education campaigns, in a variety of different places such as schools, universities, the workplace and village meeting houses. Organizations such as the Women’s Union can play a key role in such campaigns, but it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that their knowledge is up to date,” says Ian. To this end, CCIHP maintains a website aimed at youths (www.tamsubantre.org) where readers can write in with questions. Recent posts have addressed
anal sex, unwanted pregnancy, chat sex and premature ejaculation.
Bridging the Cultural Divide
While Vietnam has a way to go to being as blasé about sex as most Western countries, there does seem to be a trend towards openness. The 2010 Survey Assessment of Vietnamese youth found that 44 percent of those aged 14–25 had “modern attitudes” about premarital sex compared with 36 percent in the previous survey.
“The newer generation of young people is beginning to open up and follow the trend of its Western neighbors, in part due to the Western influence in pop culture and the development of societal growth and understanding in the subject of sex and intimacy. For example, things which used to be considered as extreme taboo, such as casual sex, are starting to be more common. People of this generation are no longer restricted by what their parents used to abide by,” notices Evan, a Californian now living in Vietnam.
On the other hand, many Vietnamese simply aren’t ready for this Western-centric level of openness. “Westerners are more permissive when it comes to sex. On TV and in films, they’re always kissing and hugging in public. Westerners also dress more ‘sexily’ and revealing than Vietnamese. They’re the opposite of Vietnamese when it comes to premarital sex, the importance of virginity and just talking about sex,” says Thang.
Truong, a Vietnamese man married to an Australian woman says, “Most Vietnamese people think that Westerners having casual sex is just like a type of exercise, something with no strings attached. Vietnamese people also think that Westerners have a higher sex drive.”
On the issue of Western students being more comfortable talking about sexual health than their Vietnamese counterparts, Richard Dyer of BIS disagrees, saying: “That is an unsubstantiated assumption. There are differences but they don’t necessarily fall along the lines of culture. There is a huge range, from the comfortable to the embarrassed, from the naive to the well informed. The challenge is sensitivity, but not cultural sensitivity per se.”
Experts in the field, though, are encouraged by slow but positive movement. “Although Vietnam is [still] a very conservative country, I think people now find it easier to talk about sex and reproductive health. One of the things that I’ve noticed change during my time in Vietnam is that the debate has moved on from the ‘mechanics’ of sexual and reproductive health such as how to prevent sexually transmitted infections, to discussions about more controversial topics such as different sexualities, the prevention of gender based violence and abortion,” says Ian. Giang agrees: “Urban Vietnamese seem to be less embarrassed to talk about sex and reproductive health. Urban youth, especially unmarried youth, are definitely more comfortable seeking SRH information and services than they were 10 years ago.”
Being able to speak frankly on the most taboo of subjects is viewed by most as a step in the right direction. “The biggest obstacle is overcoming people’s reluctance to talk about sex,” says Ian. “If we can overcome that then everything becomes easier. So let’s get talking!”