John Lui

Don't take gender stereotypes as sacred truth

If there is something I learnt in the recent kerfuffle over sexuality education, it is that any group with the desire to offer a sexuality education package to schools should never be allowed to teach it.

This is because to want to teach it, especially if you are doing it for free, you must have ideals.

Ideals are trouble because they spring from beliefs, and beliefs come from religion and politics, the great wellsprings of peace, justice and the notion that outsiders are wrong and should be wiped off the face of the earth.

For example, a vendor might be a Christian-based organisation such as Focus on the Family (FotF), which uses a booklet with views that remind me of the musical Grease, especially the horny boys-versus-sappy girls Summer Nights number (Girls: "Was it love at first sight?" Boys: "Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?").

Or a vendor might be like the group Association of Women for Action and Research, which came under fire five years ago for telling teens that homosexuality was neither good nor bad, that it was just a thing outside of the realm of values.

Folks from all across the religious and political spectrum must be amazed at the Ministry of Education (MOE) in giving them an open door to the minds of teens, so long as their syllabuses fit its overall concept of appropriateness and they stay away from private agendas.

But really, it is a bit like giving Kanye West an open microphone and an audience of thousands and hoping he won't sneak in something about Kanye West.

On the MOE website, the key teaching points for the workshops are listed.

The words that jump out are "abstinence", "sexually transmitted diseases" and "pregnancies".

In short, a key goal of teaching sexuality to kids is so they can identify problems then deflect them, as a girl would the sweaty palm of an excited 16-year-old boy at a campfire.

And of course, it was by sticking to MOE's guidelines that FotF became an authorised vendor for the topic of healthy relationships (one area under sexuality education), thus walking into the crosshairs of 17-year-old Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) student Agatha Tan.

Reading her open letter to the HCI principal, two things become apparent. First, that she is scarily smart, and second, that anyone who calls himself an expert and steps in front of a classroom filled with brains like hers must steel himself for the toughest cross-examination of his life.

She took photos of the course workbook in her open letter to the principal.

It had knee-slappers such as "If she says, 'Do I look fat?', she really means, 'Tell me I'm beautiful'", and how "We need to talk" is woman-speak for "I want to complain".

To the surprise of everyone, Ms Tan and her 300 or so supporters appear not to enjoy being described as flakes who do not mean what they say or say what they mean.

It might have helped if there was a cartoon in the book about how women lack a sense of humour. But since that in itself is a joke, women like Ms Tan won't get it.

I get the joke, for I am a manly man. In fact, I'm now shaking my head, stroking my thick American-cop moustache and chuckling indulgently at the antics of these dizzy dames.

Women, they are so cute sometimes, with their protests. They really shouldn't fill their heads with big words like "traditional gender roles". It's just not attractive.

In the small storm of clarifications and reaffirmations after Ms Tan's Facebook post went viral, FotF Singapore said in a Web post it stood by its courses, saying they were free of religious bias and enjoyed a record of glowing feedback.

The tone of the response was admirable - it was humble, full of regret at being misunderstood, with a promise to improve.

HCI's response was to say that in that particular session, the facilitator was "ineffective" in dealing with student concerns and the book was "a source of unhappiness" and that the school would look into designing its own human relationships course.

Here and there on the Web, you will find people who say that Ms Tan is wrong. Stereotypes exist because male and female brains are wired differently, they argue.

They miss the point. No one is disputing that most little boys choose to play with toy guns or that most little girls prefer dolls.

The problem is how quickly neutral observations about guns and dolls or pink and blue harden into value judgments or, worse, social policy.

To give an example: In early-1800s America, before the arrival of universal education, 90 per cent of teachers were men. After compulsory education became law, what were the states to do about paying all these new teachers?

The solution was to take the existing wage pool and spread it thinner. Men, being sole breadwinners, fled the profession. Clever politicians took to extolling teaching as women's work, a career that was a holy calling that tapped into the noble female instinct to nurture.

Young, unmarried women responded in droves, leading to the Little House On The Prairie situation of the schoolmarm from the east toughing it out on the frontier, because it was the right thing to do.

So what you see today in teaching, nursing and other traditionally female-heavy occupations is the result of historical social engineering - and suppressed wage levels - as much as it is "human nature".

Ms Tan's harshest online critics seem to be men, who are at least proving that one stereotype has a lot of truth. When it comes down to which gender has the more delicate ego and are liable to come across all trembly and defensive and lash out when that ego is threatened, men really are the weaker sex.

johnlui@sph.com.sg