Not Everything's About Gender, Religion and Sex.

by Jerrold Soh | Oct 7, 2014 | 2673 views

It’s been four years since I graduated from JC, and even longer since I last had to attend one of those “sex-ed” things. How things have changed. Now students have social media. It was very encouraging to read this elaborate piece written by my remote junior. If students standing up for what they believe in with reasoned, thoughtful responses is not a sign of our education system working, I don’t know what is.

But Ms Tan might have stepped into a minefield. In her response she deals with topics almost as sensitive as her sex-ed class portrays ‘gals’ to be – sexism, homosexuality, religion. It is not a battle that can be won by way of Facebook Post. So I write in general support of her courage, and I hope to divert the discussion from unnecessary dangers.

In short, she’s right – failed jokes are bad, enforcing views on others is bad, perpetuating gender stereotypes and rape culture is bad. Rape is bad. There is really no argument here.

But to be fair, her complaints against Focus on the Family were based on a four hour workshop conducted (I presume) by one or a few employees of the organization. It may not be the best idea, from this experience, to demonize the FotF as a “global Christian ministry known for their socially conservative views and agenda”.

I don’t think she intended this, but she implies that being (a) a Christian ministry and/or (b) conservative is wrong in itself. This is the stuff critics look for, misinterpret, and have a field day attacking you on.

Perhaps we could just talk about the sex-ed class without saying anything about gender roles, homosexuality and religion. Can we? Let’s find out.

On Sexism.

Ms Tan's piece was great because she avoided the conventional “boys-are-better-than-girls” versus “girls-are-better-than-boys” abyss that such arguments often devolve into. Sexism exists regardless of gender, and she recognizes this well when she says this:

Much as girls have been generalized and simplified in this booklet, so too have guys, and this is fair for neither gender.

Well this makes me proud that I was from A13, merely 3 numbers away from her class A10. This gender-neutral analysis could have been emphasized when she continues with this:

FotF would have you believe that guys are slaves to their hormones and therefore girls should take their unwanted attention in their stride…Certainly, we live in a male-dominated world, and for this reason, guys do tend to get away with more. Yet that they do get away with more does not mean that they should. FotF, however, seems to believe that anything a guy does is excusable just because he is a guy.

Let’s not argue on whether we live in a male-dominated world. More importantly, the above seems, again unintendedly, to slip back into the “guys-against-girls” way of thinking. Why should a girl care about what a guy thinks in deciding what to wear? When we frame things that way, the answer is obviously “no, a girl should be free to dress as she wishes”.

But let’s try gender-neutral framing here – Should a person care about what another person thinks in deciding what to wear?

This makes the answer a little less obvious. Regardless of gender, thinking about others when attiring ourselves is social courtesy. There are nudists who think otherwise, but let’s just not. The point is that considering others’ impressions of us is a big reason why we even wear clothes at all in Sunny Singapore. That and the fines for public indecency.

There must be some room to say that A shouldn’t dress this way for B’s sake. Plato said be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle. We’re in this as humans first, guys and girls second, third, or maybe even fourth. So there are some things we should do for each other – not because guys have an obligation to respect girls and girls have an obligation to support guys, but because humans have an obligation to respect humans.

The problem only arises when it is only a particular group of people must do this while others are allowed to do whatever they want. Discrimination makes things unfair. So Ms Tan gets it right when she points out that what her sex-ed class does wrong is to “belittle” girls while stoking guys’ egos.

If that was really what FotF was trying to say, then they are wrong. But let’s not be too quick to say they were evil. I don’t think the FotF is out there to belittle women. There are enough people doing that as it is.

What then could they have intended to achieve by “perpetuating the message that anything and everything guys do is excusable simply because it is wired into them”? Perhaps they weren’t trying to do that. After all I’d like to assume they meant well. That is not me saying that good intentions absolve them completely. Still, could they have in fact wanted to prevent, not perpetuate, rape?

I think so. Suppose you bought a brand new iPhone 6. You like it a lot. You bring it downstairs for lunch. You order food. You leave the brand new iPhone 6, all 6.9mm of it, unattended on the table. Some misfit walks by and grabs it. It is your fault you lost the phone?

No, because theft is theft. Even if you’ve left your revolutionary Retina display unattended. Theft is a crime. When the police catch the misfit, he’s not going walk free just because “you left it there”. Even if he proves that he’s a kleptomaniac who cannot help but steal things, he’s not wholly excusable. In fact if the police know he’s a compulsive thief he’s in for a bad time. But could you have played at least a tiny role in preventing the crime? I think so.

Rape’s very different from theft. But I think the analogy holds. If we lived in a perfect world, you could leave your stunning iPhone 6 on the table and all misfits will control themselves because stealing is wrong. If we lived in a perfect world, you could wear whatever you wanted and never worry because everyone knows rape is wrong. Ms Tan is unassailable when she argues that girls should not have to bear the burden of guys’ inability to control themselves. She’s right that hormones excuse nothing. Indeed, I don’t think any accused rapist has ever succeeded on a “my hormones made me do it” defence – at least not in Singapore.

But we live in an imperfect world. Things should not be this way, but as long as things are this way – as long as covering up prevents rape, then it makes sense to tell someone to do that – regardless of whether that person is male or female. It’s not a guy-girl thing. It’s crime prevention.

So arguments against sexism shouldn’t be sexist. And maybe, just maybe, FotF was just trying to help. Still that doesn’t excuse them from…

All the bad jokes.

Ms Tan’s right when she points out that the “yes means no” and “no means yes” thing is potentially insulting. And calling girls ‘gals’ was a bad idea. But in the spirit of fairness, all of that sounds more like a case of an honest attempt at audience engagement gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Let’s face it – young adults nowadays don’t like (or need) to be told what to do about sexuality. Many have defensible views on complex issues like homosexuality, relationships and the like formed from extensive self-reading and exploration across the internet. The last thing they want is being forced through four painful hours of some old-timer trying to tell them what they already know. That's why Ms Tan says that "using the four hour long workshop to once again preach the value of abstinence seems excessive and unnecessary".

So if we were in FotF’s shoes, what would we have done? First order of business: reach out to these precocious ones. But what happens when you try too hard to make sex-ed interesting?

Well, now we know: this.

Don’t get me wrong. Genuinely trying to engage a disinterested audience doesn’t save you from perpetuating bad views. But it does make things a little more understandable. Perhaps as the organization appointed (and probably paid) to do this FotF had a responsibility play it a little smarter. Perhaps they should have ran it through a few actual young adults before they ran the workshop. Maybe they did exactly that in a few schools before this one, but the young adults they ran it through, being young adults, preferred doing their homework to complaining about something they’d really rather not be reminded of. We’ll never know. But what FotF has said so far is that the book was based on "well-researched material by various trusted family life and relationship experts". Vagueness aside, they may have a point.

Suffice to say, let’s not judge them with the benefit of hindsight if all they were trying to do is make things a little more interesting. By all means they should have pitched their stereotypes a little lower on the scale of insultingitude. But what’s done is done, and I don’t think there’s enough in this to say that they were all-out promoting bigotry and rape culture.

On religion and homosexuality…or not.

Let’s deal with these ideas together because (a) they’re not meant to be dealt with together, and (b) this forces us not to dwell on these black holes of reason and emotion. Make no mistake, I am neither advocating Christianity nor non-Christianity. I am not Christian and am in no position to comment on whether Christians are necessarily conservative and anti-LGBTQ rights.

I also say nothing on whether LGBTQ rights should be recognized or not recognized. To me both sides are equally wrong and right at the same time because I don’t have the slightest clue what causes homosexuality and what its impacts are or can be. And until science can indisputably prove some of this, matters of pure speculation can hold no substantial debate.

What I do say is this: It is easy to get carried away when we unnecessarily focus on religion and homosexuality. Discussions lead nowhere and don’t cause much positive change. Instead they end in counter-name-calling all the way up the family tree.

Ms Tan might have been right to say that “FotF has used sexuality education as an opportunity to further spread their own conservative, ‘God-ordained’ beliefs rather than to educate students on arguably more important things such as safe sex, sexual identity and shared and equal responsibility.” The point, however, is that religion is not the point. Regardless of race, language, or religion, everyone has sexuality. Perhaps we could go beyond saying “Christians are plainly conservative” or “Liberalism is blasphemy” and really just focus on the real issue here – are young adults being taught the right things?

Don’t take it from me. MOE’s website states this:

The MOE Sexuality Education helps students understand the physiological, social and emotional changes they experience as they mature, develop healthy and rewarding relationships, and make wise, informed and responsible decisions on sexuality matters.

So this is the whole purpose FotF had to achieve. There is no need to say “FotF failed because they are spreading religious beliefs”. Religious or not religious, what matters is they help students do what they need to do. That’s it. In her zealous response, Ms Tan might have bitten off what she didn’t have to chew.

This begs the question – what does helping students really mean? Here’s where Ms Tan’s arguments fit right in. If students are expected to make informed decisions, it would make sense to inform them. And not, as the FotF facilitator seems to have done, “shut down” someone who asked a genuine question or “dismissed anyone outside of his limited moral framework”.

But in the spirit of fairness again, let’s consider why that was done. Plot twist – maybe they were trying to challenge students to think for themselves. Maybe that’s why they suppressed thought – precisely so someone would write an open letter and get the whole JC-sphere talking. Maybe, just maybe…not. I don’t think they would have put their reputation on the line for this.

Remote possibilities aside, a more plausible scenario is that they honestly thought making responsible decisions was the key here. And what is “responsible”? This forces me to make a dangerous point – which is that the law as it is makes it an offence for “any male person” to commit “any act of gross indecency with another male person”.  This is what it says. Check it out yourself if you want.

Perhaps the law should not be like this. Perhaps it should. But, as things stand, this is the law - even if it has been said that it won’t be enforced. So whatever described above is illegal. Even if it should or shouldn’t be.

Now, if you were a non-profit organization approved by the government to teach sexuality education in JCs islandwide, would you dare say something illegal right now is actually okay? It’s of course one thing to be advocating views in your personal right. We’ve fought for thousands of years to enshrine the right to be entitled to our views and to express them, and the battle isn’t over. It’s another thing to be advocating certain views when you’re representing the school, the education system, and possibly the entire government. Remember what the Health Promotion Board went through? Heads will roll, salaries will vanish.

I wouldn’t be surprised if FotF was specifically instructed to make no comments on homosexuality and to hush-hush any related questions till the break. Lest they face the wrath of concerned parents, to say the least.

What we can say though, is that if what Ms Tan describes is correct, then FotF did a very bad job of hush-hushing. I wasn’t there, but from what’s described it seemed like the facilitator carried himself with a holier-than-thou attitude and displayed as much intolerance to genuine questions from students as facilitatorly possible. Something which obviously didn’t help amidst bad jokes and insensitive stereotyping.

As a final point – I’d just like to disagree that it’s the school’s fault for “indirectly participating” in this. No doubt many things are their fault. But I’d say they were entitled to think an MOE-approved group would do the job properly.

At the end of the day, let’s look at things in as helpful a way as possible. I am pleasantly surprised that Ms Tan wrote such a cogent response to her sex-ed class. I for one could and would not have done that five years ago. With a few more years on my belt I felt obliged to add on what I could - that she troubles herself unnecessarily with ideas which detract from her main point. As I write this I know that someone somewhere, guy or girl, Christian or non-Christian, LGBTQ or non-LGBTQ, has taken offence at ideas she perhaps unintentionally raised in her criticism of FotF’s conduct. There will be people who misinterpret her words as a threat to their beliefs. Others will make personal attacks using words far stronger than “Liberal Woman”.

But hey, the real problem is that our young adults aren’t being taught sex-ed properly. As fellow humans, maybe we should do something about it. Meanwhile, constructive discussion is always good - if not for its own sake, then at least because it helps students better understand these issues and make wise, informed and responsible decisions.

The above is a thinly veiled attempt at making AQ writing seem practically useful. It is also a thinly veiled attempt to express some of the writer's personal (non)views. They do not represent owlcove. If you are minded to reply or criticise, even without reading the article in full, please be assured that you are entitled to do so.

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