Birds and bees and backpacks

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Birds and bees and backpacks

The controversy began last year when members of the school board at Yonsei University denied a request from some students that condom dispensers be installed in the university's bathrooms and health centers.

The school, whose educational mission is based on a mix of Christian beliefs and Confucian influences, argued that condom availability on campus may "induce the students to have sex." It was an anachronistic sentiment considering Yonsei was already providing information about sex on its Internet homepage. The Female Student Union at the school had created pages with comprehensive sex education, including plenty of information about contraception.

The situation at Yonsei has stirred debates at universities across the peninsula. Questions are being asked about what is moral and what is immoral, and what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

It has been less than four years since Korean society was swept up with the issue of sex education by an eccentric woman, Gu Sung-ae, a one-time gynecological nurse. Ms. Gu preached that Korean parents should be candid about sex with their children in order to teach youngsters "a wholesome sexuality." She called her theory "auseong," which means "outcry." But she also used the word as a sort of acronym for "healthy sexuality for young people."

In a society in which formal discussions about sexuality were still taboo, Ms. Gu's remarks brought a sensational shift in the ways Koreans view and talk about sex in schools and the educational media. Since then, sex education in local universities has become commonplace. Teens who aren't given practical information about sex in high school are sure to have access to sex education if they go to college.

Yonsei's Female Student Union now invites a group of educators every semester to hold a safe sex campaign around Baegyangno ?the university's main boulevard ?at which condoms are given to passers-by. At Korea University, the administrators organized a class called "Happy Partnership," in which students are encouraged to reflect on how they talk about sexuality with their partners. The course is conducted as a seminar to facilitate group discussions. Ehwa Woman's University also invites female guest speakers every Monday to talk to students about contraception methods and women's health-related issues.

But when it comes to issues of sexuality, of course, it is impossible to present a unified notion that speaks for the majority of the public. There are just too many conflicting views. As a result, sex education is conveyed in diverse ways, making it difficult to verify the accuracy of the information.

In the latest survey on sexuality conducted at Yonsei, 28 percent of the students said they had had sexual intercourse. More than a third of those said the sex had been "purely experimental." But professionals suggest that the sexually active rate on college campuses is now much higher due to the increase of Internet use and the wealth of information about sex in cyberspace.

"Things change fast nowadays," says Kim Sei-won, the chief counselor at Yonsei's Student Counseling Center. "Students say that there is even a cultural gap between the juniors and seniors."

Sex education on college campuses varies from the most basic information to the most thorough, according to Shin Lee Chan-hee, a counselor at the Korean Woman Link, a nonprofit civic group. Ms. Shin said some classes teach little more than how to use a condom while others are conducted by experts and leave no subject off-limits. "College students vary almost infinitely," says Ms. Shin, who has been holding lectures at university orientations every spring for the past few years. "Some girls say they've never seen a condom before in their lives; others are comfortable admitting that they buy them all the time at pharmacies."

One of the notable changes of sex education programs on college campuses in the last few years is the increase of seminars to facilitate more communication about sexuality and the body.

In the past, university classes dealt with human sexuality in a medical context, within the curriculums of health science. These studies were limited to physical and psychological analysis. But as the issue was taken up by the social science and gender studies fields within the past few years, many more courses look at human sexuality from a sociological point of view. The style of teaching has also shifted from one-sided lectures and slide presentations to discussion-based classes, which encourage students to express their personal opinions.

Many of those discussions touch on ethical themes and prejudices. "There are automatic judgments in Korea that men who carry condoms in their pockets are all Casanovas and women who take birth control pills are promiscuous," says Paik Sang-hoon, a Yonsei senior taking the class "Sexuality and Cultural Representations." "They don't realize that using a condom is a gesture of care and consideration for our partners. Ironically, the men who are unprepared are those who put themselves and their partners at risk, especially when they know their girlfriends aren't taking birth control either."

According to another man in the same class, sexual education can sometimes be sexist. "It's not fair to judge men if they have distorted views on sexuality," Lee Sang-hak, a Yonsei senior, says. "I went to a coed high school, and one day in my physical education class the teacher separated the boys and girls. The girls were taken inside the classroom and presented with a sex education class while the boys were left in the gym to play basketball. They probably thought we had more access to sexual materials, while girls were ignorant about what's going on out there. No wonder we get our own sources from the darkest corners."

by Park Soo-mee

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