Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sexuality 101 Exhibit Says It Straight

Teenage boys gape at a coloured photograph of a vagina, while girls give embarrassed smiles as they watch a cartoon that showed penises 'talking' about masturbation. Young girls crowd around a display panel about love and relationships, as a boy embraces a female mannequin with all his might in order to measure the strength of his hug.

These scenes greet many a visitor to the National Science Museum located just outside the Thai capital Bangkok, where 'The Story of Love', an interactive exhibit on human sexuality, is underway.

The year-long exhibit, which opened on Jun. 30, was set up as a frank and creative way to talk about sensitive sexuality and gender issues, and reach out to young people.

Twelve-year-old Nest, a Grade 6 student, shyly acknowledges that the exhibit allows her "to learn more about sex".

"I like it because there are lots of information about sex and love, more than what we talk about in class," said 15-year-old James, a Grade 9 student who visited the museum with his family.

Mounted by the museum in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), United Nations Development Fund for Women, Women's Health Advocacy Foundation and other groups, the exhibit hopes to address the need for accurate information about sexuality that may not be so openly discussed in schools and within families.

"This exhibit is simply a venue for everyone to start talking about sex and sexuality in a non-judgmental manner," said Ganigar Chen, director of the museum’s science communication and international relations division.

Divided into six zones, the exhibit walks visitors through sexual intercourse and abortion, as well as gender-based biases and sexual violence.

"I’m so pleased with this exhibit because it's direct and not filled with euphemisms," said James' father, Charles Gittelson, who teaches at an international school.

Gittelson's wife, Apple, is amused by the exhibit's inclusion of sex toys, which can be seen through peepholes. A monitor also shows samples of different viruses of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

At a time when youngsters are exposed to a barrage of information from their peers and the media, the key is to help them learn accurately about and learn how to act responsibility, says museum president Pichai Sonchaeng.

"We can't keep our children at home and we're not with them 24 hours daily. So we need to teach them about safe sex, population control, sexual violence, sexual preferences and related matters," he said.

In sex education classes, adults always impart a covert message for young people to avoid having sex, explains Philip Bergstrom, adviser on adolescent reproductive sexual health for UNESCO Bangkok.

"What they need is for us to trust them to make the best choice possible by giving them enough information in a non-judgmental way as possible, so they can make their own decisions," said Bergstrom.

Often, many in Thai society believe that "if you teach this subject too much, it will encourage students to have sex", especially when talking about condoms and other forms of contraception, added Mahidol University Prof Pimpawun Boonmongkon, a specialist in gender and sexuality issues.

Museum officials have had their share of less than enthusiastic reactions to the exhibit. "We got a lot of comments that it's not the museum's duty to work on this, and that this could be too much for the young people to take," added Pichai.

But it is more, not less, talk, that is needed, exhibit organisers and gender advocates say.

In fact, parents need to start talking to their daughters about sex. In Thai society, it is the son who is usually taught this while the daughter is "protected" from it, Pichai explains.

Indeed, among the taboo topics among Thais is premarital sex for women, Pimpawun adds.

Although Thailand’s policy on sex education was announced as early as 1938, it was only in 1978 that it was taught in schools. At present, Chen says, sex education subjects are taught from secondary school onwards.

Bergstrom says that while there have been great efforts in making sex education more comprehensive in recent years, "it is still not working well".

In her research, Pimpawun found that only 4 percent of schools in Thailand included sex education in their curriculum under a more liberal, student- centred and interactive approach.

Discussions of what goes into the sex education materials have also led to much controversy in the past.

"There are only 16 hours per year allowed for sex education and no particular incentives are built in for teachers or students to teach and study sex education, and it doesn't show up in university exams," said Bergstrom.

Many students do not know whom to ask about sex in the first place. "They can't talk to the teachers as the latter themselves get embarrassed by the topic," Chen pointed out.

"For teachers, even to say the specific name of a reproductive organ can be very difficult, what more with explaining the sex act itself?" asked exhibit curator Nopparat Thepthepa.

"Thai teachers can be very square in teaching sex education. The reality is that teenagers are curious about sex -- and they do have sex," commented Gittelson, who has lived in Thailand for 20 years.

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.