Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
In Korea, the word conservative isn’t quite enough to describe the social ban on the mention of sex especially in the public sphere. Even sex education only lightly touches on the details. Parents complain to schools for teaching students how to use condoms, never mind giving condoms out or showing educational videos about sex.
Last month, seven children’s books on sex and gender education among 199 books that were distributed to schools by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family were recalled after they were criticized by the conservative party for being inappropriate for children. Conservative parents and Christian media alike criticized the books for their “promiscuity” even though many of them have been used to teach children all over the world for decades and recognized for their educational purposes.
While it has mostly been taken for granted in Korea that sex education is lacking, the recent controversy surrounding these books has reignited the debate on whether something should be done about this status quo.
Must children always be taught only the euphemistic tales of sex or the scientific formulas of it without the details? Must sex always be left undiscussed, an elephant in the room whose presence is neither ignored nor acknowledged? How can we change the current sex education system to properly prepare children for what lies ahead of them?
Where it all began
In December 2018, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family signed a memorandum of understanding with Lotte and ChildFund Korea to organize an educational culture project titled “Nadaum Books,” directed and operated by civil organization Think Sing Together, which specializes in curating children’s books. The project chose 134 books to be on the “Nadaum Book List” the following year that would help raise children’s awareness on gender and sex — the first time for Korea to create a list of children’s books specifically on such subjects.
Nadaum in Korean means “being myself,” with the slogan of “Following stories, finding yourself.” The books were about “finding what it means to be yourself, not as a female or male — just yourself” and came amid rising calls for proper education on equality as a result of a surge of feminism in Korea.
A panel of six people comprising teachers, professors and experts scrutinized 1,200 books in and outside Korea based on 26 criteria they set such as: whether the book explains how babies are born in its entirety; whether the change in a child’s body is positively explained; whether the family members comprise diverse members; whether or not the characters in the book are overly divided as male or female; and whether the book opposes discriminating people based on gender, race, wealth or disabilities. Sixty-five books were added this year to make up a list of 199 books.
The books were distributed to five elementary schools around the country in November last year, and were welcomed as the first list of children’s books put together by the Korean government on diversity and equality — but not for long.
Not for Korea?
On Aug. 25, Rep. Kim Byeong-wook from the opposition People Power Party singled out seven books from the list during an Education Committee meeting held at the National Assembly in Seoul for their “inadequacy” as children’s education books. He claimed the books were “too sexual,” “caused early sexualization” and “beautified homosexuality.”
He pointed out seven books including “How A Baby Is Made” (1971) by Per Holm Knudsen, “The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made” (2015) by Fiona Katauskas and “The Love Book” (2001) by Pernilla Stalfelt, taking images from them to use as evidence of their inadequacy. The parts that were cited for their ineptitude included when Knudsen’s book describes adults as “liking” sexual intercourse and when Stalfelt’s book explains that anyone could fall in love, such as two women or two men.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae explained that “the books are not displayed for students to see, and are managed separately by the teachers and librarians.” She added that she will “look into them and quickly take measures where needed.”
A quick measure was indeed taken. The Gender Ministry decided to withdraw the controversial books just a day later on Aug. 26.
But even before Rep. Kim, the books were already an issue of contention among parents. After a conservative Christian news outlet Pennmike wrote an article on Aug. 13 with a headline that read, “Gender Ministry criticized for providing schools with children’s books that promote homosexuality and give obscene descriptions of sexual intercourse,” online complaints flooded in from parents, concerned about exposing their children to such books.
An anonymous online petition was posted on the Blue House website on Aug. 24 demanding the government take the books back and prohibit them from ever being distributed again. It has been signed by 75,000 as of mid-September, which is far short of the 200,000 signatures that are needed to get an official response from the administrative authorities but still enough numerically to prove the concerns of Korean parents.
A big step back
After its withdrawal decision, Gender Minister Lee Jeong-ok explained on Aug. 31 that “Nadaum” was not a project that was led by the ministry, and cited Lotte as having the final say in regards to the fate of the books in a briefing that took place at the Gwanghwamun Government Complex in central Seoul.
“It was not of our intention that a project that began as a social contribution enterprise of a company would lead to social conflict,” Lee said, explaining why the withdrawal came so quickly. “Had it been a project led by the Gender Ministry, then we would have been open to discussions on the value [of the project], but we had no choice but to consider the partnership with the company since it was their business.”
The ministry explained to the Korea JoongAng Daily that the decision came after discussions with Lotte. ChildFund Korea pulled out from the project altogether. The decision is not likely to be revoked to ensure consistency in policy, but the ministry will work to develop other means of educational content — especially on sexuality. The National Assembly’s Gender Equality and Family Committee recommended the Gender Ministry get a second opinion on the decision on Sept. 7 while authorizing the 2019 budget spending and the reserve fund expenditure.
Although the withdrawal of the books doesn’t mean they've been taken off the shelves of bookstores, it does mean that Korean education has once again failed to break away from its decades-old stasis and yielded to society’s inertia, according to the myriad of statements released following the ministry’s decision.
Organizations such as the Korean Publishers Association, Cultural Action, Korea Women’s Association United and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (also known as Jeon Gyojo), as well as authors, educators and critics urged the ministry revoke its decision and deliberate on the future of sexual education.
“What happens when the ministry makes these decisions is that other institutions such as schools and libraries start tiptoeing around,” said Shim Esther, a sex educator and also the co-author of children’s sex education book “Is This Question Okay?” (2019), who said that she has been using books that have been withdrawn for her lessons for years.
“I had been using the same books for my lessons so far, but after this decision the same organizations that were okay with my curriculum told me to take those books out of my lessons. It should be left to the children to decide on the lessons of what those books teach, but instead, they have been contaminated by a filter that have deemed them ‘unfit’ and now children are robbed of the opportunity to talk about the body as it is and think for themselves. By not teaching them, we’re not preventing it from happening — we’re just leaving them unprepared for what will happen.
What will be will be
In fact, as opposed to what concerned, conservative Korean parents believe, education will not incite the children into having sex.
According to Unesco’s “International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education,” first published in 2009 and updated in 2018, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) actually delays sexual initiation as well as decreases the frequency of sex while increasing the use of condoms. Comprehensive sexuality education is a “curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality” as opposed to abstinence-only programs.
Contrary to parents’ belief that sex education will lead to their children having more sex, earlier, a survey on the aftereffects that CSE demonstrated on sexual behaviors revealed that 37 percent of 87 countries that were surveyed said its students had delayed initiation of sex after education, 31 percent said the frequency of sex was reduced and the use of condoms increased in 40 percent of the countries.
Rather than lingering on the ministry’s already-made decision, Nam Yoon-jeong, the president of Think Sing Together who led the Nadaum project, hoped that this incident could be turned into an opportunity to talk about sex education and how sex is dealt with in Korea.
“Korea had been lacking proper sex education and any discussion on sex or human rights has been shut down whenever it began,” said Nam. “We are exposed to sexual consumption and imagery everyday and everywhere, but an ironic stoic sentiment forbids us from talking about it publicly or officially. The ambivalent culture leads to children wondering about something they are exposed to, but getting twisted ideas of it because they’re not taught properly about what it is exactly. The truth must be spoken of as it is.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]