[The Korea Herald] What should schools teach about sex?

By John Power

In a country where sex is not to be spoken about, it is no surprise that sex education in schools is a sensitive issue. Deciding what content is both relevant and appropriate is invariably contentious.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology currently requires all schools to provide 10 hours of sex education per year. Nevertheless, teachers can be reluctant to broach the subject, with some educators reluctant even to mention sex at all. It is inevitable, then, that the usefulness of such classes has been called into question. A 2007 survey by AHA! Sexuality Education and Counseling Center for Youth in Seoul found that almost 44 percent of teenagers found the sex education they had received at school to be neither practical nor helpful.

“Current sex education focuses on virginity, which is not an interest of students,” said Cha Chi-young, a professor at the division of nursing science at Ewha Womans University. “They want practical information, but the sex educators are not giving the information they want. As a consequence, most students are getting information from the Internet. It is highly likely that the students get unreliable information.”

Sex education in schools begins in fifth grade, with classes including information about reproductive health and gender roles and equality, according to a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry. Later classes from sixth grade through high school address sexual assault prevention, prostitution, AIDS, contraception and how to cope with sexual urges.

Children participate in a sex education activity organized by AHA! Sexuality Education & Counseling Center for Youth. (AHA! Sexuality Education & Counseling Center for Youth)

“The school education is not about sexual activity, but the concept itself. A healthy concept of sex and gender culture is the objective, so it includes both contraception and abstinence,” said the spokeswoman, who added that the ministry had no immediate plans to revise the curriculum.

Statistics show that significant numbers of teenagers are sexually active, despite Korean society’s conservative norms. Close to 9 percent of high school students have experienced sexual intercourse, according to figures for this year from The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, continuing a steady rise in the number of sexually active teens.

Studies also suggest that most sexually active teens do not use contraception ― just under 60 percent according to a Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2010. Sexually transmitted infections are far from unheard of: In one study of more than 1,500 people aged 20-59, 5.58 percent had Chlamydia. Births outside of wedlock have also risen in recent years, although Korea’s proportion remains the lowest in the OECD, at about 1.6 percent of total births. In the U.S., by contrast, more than half of births are outside of marriage.

President-elect of the Korean Association for Sexology and Chonnam National University professor Youn Ga-hyun has seen Korean society become increasingly liberal in its attitudes to sex in the last two decades.

“I dealt with the sexual issues as a part of ‘Introductory Psychology’ in the late 1980s (in university), but began to teach ‘Psychology of Human Sexuality’ course from the year 1990. At that time when I began to teach it, most students were very passive in the class. No students tried to ask a question to the instructor, and even they were afraid of being asked any question from me. However, several years later I realized that there had been significant differences in attitudes toward sex between former students and new students. The newer students were, the more liberal attitudes they showed,” Youn said.

The biggest single failing of the current education system, according to Youn, is its failure to tackle entrenched gender inequality.

“The current main drawback to the sexuality education in Korea is that there are still too many teachers who stick to the traditional gender roles, expectations, (who) did not have any opportunity of being trained for sexuality education, and thus don’t understand the notion of gender equality.”

The double standards at the heart of many Koreans’ attitudes to sex can have devastating consequences, said Cha.

“Sexual double standards cause many issues. For example, scholars who have investigated sexual predators reported high sexual double standards. Korean women who are victims of sexual violence do not report the case because they are afraid of being stigmatized as having loose morals. Teenage girls have hard time saying that they want to use a condom because initiating talk about sex is not socially allowed for females,” she said.

While those double standards might be expected to be on the wane, Cha is ambivalent about the nation’s continuing sexual liberalization.

“(It is) a good thing and a bad thing. I am more leaned toward the positive side though. I believe to solve problems we need to be open, and accept that people have sexual needs. (But, on the other hand) teenagers who are too young to make decisions for themselves might be exposed to sex. They might later regret their sexual behavior.”

Morality and religious belief inevitably enter the equation in any debate on sex. The Christian Council of Korea, the country’s largest alliance of Christian churches, recently protested the Korea Food and Drug Administration’s reclassification of the morning after pill as over the counter medicine on the grounds that it can act as an abortifacient. The organization also opposed the students’ rights ordinance introduced by Seoul Metropolitan Office last year because of its clause on respecting all sexual orientations.

A spokesman for CCK, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the organization is opposed to teaching school students about the pill.

“We think life is precious, which is given from God. And then children are also a blessing. We think life is incomparable and also … a result of love,” said the spokesman.

He said that the CCK did not have an official position on sex education but that it supported married life and an “appropriate sex culture in Korea.”

With many different stakeholders with differing views involved in the discussion on what to teach young people about sex, reaching a consensus can be challenging.

Youn said it is important to involve community organizations and parents in devising sex education, rather than preserving it as the domain of the ministry alone.

“A community, such as parent-teacher-organizations, should be involved in sexuality education. School should reflect the opinion of school parents, and at the same times school should try to make the parents understand what the school does for their children.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

[The Korea Herald] Are multicultural schools a problem waiting to happen?

Korea, a country with little history of immigration, is rapidly becoming more racially and culturally diverse. With society coming to terms with how to ensure social harmony and successful integration of immigrants, the idea of specific schools for so-called “multicultural children” has been one approach taken by the government. Such schools have sparked national debate about integration, segregation and future national identity. — John.

By John Power

Korea’s children are ethically and culturally diverse as never before. There were more than 151,000 children of mixed ethnicity in the country last year, a more than 350 percent rise since 2007.

With many arriving from overseas in their teens, language and cultural barriers are a challenge to succeeding in school. About 30 percent of children with a foreign parent are outside the school system entirely, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Against this backdrop, the Education Ministry in March opened high schools in Seoul and Jaecheon, North Chungcheong, for such children. Seoul Dasom High School has 48 students who grew up overseas and have a foreign parent. While the school currently caters to children raised abroad, it plans to accept those born in Korea to a foreign parent in the near future.

“… There are students who came to Korea after a certain period in their home country, and therefore, have difficulties in adjusting to general schools in Korea,” an Education Ministry spokesperson told Voice in a statement.

“To help these students, Dasom Schools opened in Seoul and North Chungcheong Province in March 2012. The Dasom School is a public school for students from different ethnic backgrounds and provides language, cultural and technical education. Its diploma is recognized as a high school diploma. Next year, another Dasom school will open in Incheon. As such, the government of Korea is assisting multicultural students to grow into healthy citizens. It is also providing various support to help them become global talents by nourishing bilingual potential and enhancing multicultural sensitivity.”

But some fear that such schools could do more to entrench divisions than mend them. Popular blogger Robert Koehler, a 15-year resident married to a Mongolian woman here, shares such concerns.

“I’d be concerned that they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage in Korea by not attending normal schools and that by associating only with students of mixed racial backgrounds, it would impede their development as members of Korean society. As a taxpayer, I’d also ask why the government was spending money so that Korean nationals can learn pride in being non-Korean. If individual families want to instill pride in a certain foreign cultural heritage, fine ― I imagine my family (which is) German/Irish-American and Mongolian will. But that’s not something the state should be doing,” he said.

The government has opened a number of schools for multi-ethnic children such as those pictured above at an event at the Korea Food Research Institute at Sookmyung University in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

Koehler, who has no kids “yet,” also wonders whether grouping multiethnic children together could engender racial resentment.

“Put multicultural kids all together, add a few ideologically sympathetic teachers, and dollars to donuts you’ll turn the classroom into a cesspool of identity and grievance politics. And Korean-Korean parents and their kids will nurse grievances because the ‘foreign’ kids are being treated ‘special.’”

Park Kyung-tae, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University who specializes in multiculturalism, also has doubts.

“Although the facility is good, it has only symbolic meaning that Korean society is doing a good job to include those multicultural kids. But that is a very, very small number and special cases only,” he said.

He believes all schools should be multicultural in so far as having diverse student bodies and educational support for students struggling to fit in.

Skeptical voices have even arisen within the government itself.

Last year, in a statement to The Korea Herald, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which also deals with multicultural matters, expressed its opposition to so-called multicultural schools.

“The establishment of a separate school, class and after school activities for children with multicultural backgrounds is not viewed as an appropriate measure for the children of multicultural families,” it said.

At the time, the Education Ministry insisted the school policy had been pursued with the endorsement of the Gender Minister, something expressly denied by the latter.

A spokeswoman for the Gender Ministry reiterated its earlier position on Thursday, saying it was against separate schools because “(students) have to adjust to this society because their nationality is Korean.”

She expressed surprise that the Education Ministry had claimed to have pursued the school policy with her ministry’s agreement, saying she would “check with the Ministry of Education.”

The Education Ministry declined last week to answer questions about the number of such schools it ultimately intended to establish, but stressed that the schools were for only a small proportion of students.

“The government of Korea seeks an ‘integrated education,’ in which students from different ethnic backgrounds are allowed to choose which elementary, middle, or high school to go to. Accordingly, most ‘multicultural students’ are enrolled in general schools,” it said.

In addition to the specialized schools, the ministry has also introduced a number of six-month preparatory programs in the Korean language and culture to ready students for entry into regular classes. It plans to have 26 of these programs in place within the year.

Seong Sang-hwan, of the Education Ministry-funded National Center for Multicultural Education, appreciates the concerns regarding division. But he believes such schools are a necessary, if temporary, measure.

“These kids, they have trouble in regular Korean schools because regular schools, they are not ready to accept these kids. These schools should be regarded as some kind of stepping stone to transfer to regular schools …We have to watch these schools closely but at the moment I think this move is OK. I think it is acceptable,” Seong said.

Seong believes that the success of immigrants greatly depends on their own efforts to integrate into their new community, a view informed by his own experience as an immigrant first to the U.S. and then to Germany.

“I think the incoming immigrants, they have to participate in the school life, or school activities, social activities and so on. In this way you are accepted more and more … if you stay aloof from the mainstream then you are very unhappy and you don’t get to know people there. And you don’t get to know the friends of your kids and so. I think that’s very tragic,” he said.

He relates the story of a Chinese immigrant he met as part of field research for his center. Her mother-in-law had forbidden her from attending Korean classes, preferring her to stay at home.

“This Chinese woman could not speak Korean that well. As soon as she was allowed to attend regular official Korean classes offered by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family … she was exposed to this new environment and she started picking up excellent Korean very quickly. And then she was offered a Chinese teaching position as well,” Seong said.

Kangwon University professor Han Geon-soo, who supports temporary “segregation” classes before integration, said other countries’ experiences of immigration provide little insight for Korea, owning to its distinct characteristics.

“Basically, it should be ‘salad bowl’ but what is important is the contents and quality of ‘salad bowl,’” he said.