Serene Goh, Schools Editor

Hwa Chong relationship workshop: Lessons on engaging the young

I cannot imagine that anyone who seeks to educate others on healthy relationships would intentionally seek to promote “bigotry” or a “rape culture”. 

Yet 17-year-old Agatha Tan’s eloquent open letter to her Hwa Chong Institution principal, which went viral, criticises the eponymous booklet of the Focus On The Family (FOTF) Singapore’s It’s UNcomplicated (IUC) workshop for just that. Well-argued and evocative, Ms Tan’s letter employs the leanings of its generation, using a politically correct rhetoric of acceptance, as well as the embracing of counter cultures and sexual equality.

Among other things, it disagrees with the session’s emphasis on “traditional” gender roles, and laments its portrayal of women as “hopelessly dependent beings who are totally incapable of surviving without guys”. In particular, she takes issue with girls being described as “emotional”, “wanting security” and needing to “look attractive”, while boys “needed respect” and “didn't want a girlfriend that questions their opinions and argues with their decisions all the time”. 

Reactions to Ms Tan’s letter have been swift - in my view, too swift.

Former HCI student and software engineer Irene Oh, 31, started a petition calling for the school to suspend the workshop immediately, receiving hundreds of signatures.

The Ministry of Education quickly announced that IUC would cease its run by December 2014, without clarifying if it was a response to the complaint or if the contract was ending anyway. Read the report here.

HCI’s principal Dr Hon Chiew Weng, promptly said the school would develop its own material from now on.

Meanwhile, the pamphlet’s author and workshop coordinators defend the course and accompanying literature, saying such elements were added for humour and to spark discussion, with previous sessions going without issue.

FOTF in a statement on Oct10 stated that it has conducted sexuality and relationship programmes for the past 12 years; at HCI since 2011 “with good feedback”. More than 14,000 students from 13 schools have attended IUC since its launch in 2013, it said, and its workshops have “consistently received positive feedback of more than 85 per cent of the students rating it as ‘Very Good/Good’ and 89 per cent rating the overall presentation of our facilitators as ‘Very Good/Good’.”

Another participant of the same workshop, Mr Ian Wong, has since posted an alternative to Miss Tan’s views on FaceBook saying: “... some of her claims were fallacious and rather exaggerated. Without understanding the context of the issue, it is easy to take in some of these claims wholeheartedly, as many outsiders (including students) were not present at the workshop have done”.

Referring to the snapshots of pages Miss Tan chose to post, he added: “There was no implying that girls mean ‘Yes’ when they say ‘No’ in the context of sex. The phrases ‘yes means no?’ and ‘no means yes?’ were said with the intent of expressing confusion teenagers might have as they explore the concept of romantic love. “Her open declaration that the workshop encourages guys to think that girls mean yes when they say no when it comes to sex seems to be a forced interpretation on her part.”

Indeed, one has to wonder if a “Very Good/Good” workshop might be felled by a very good/good essay.

What is clear from the ruckus online - such a fuss that it apparently surprised even its writer - is that the offending booklet, in simplifying those age-old differences between Mars and Venus, failed to use language that resonates with some segments of its audience.

Stylistically, it seems to hark back to the 1970s and 1980s, when social norms between “gals” and guys tended to be more conservative.

Consider though, that most teens today have by age 14 already had years of continuous exposure to sub-cultures, opinions, influencers and new media offerings alternative and liberal from around the world. These include explicit, often misogynistic R&B music videos, erotica such as 50 Shades Of Grey, sexualised games, images and attitudes, twerking, and just as many permutations of relationships. Their peer groups are international, their family nuclei varied, and to many of them, neatly defined gender assignments and roles are outdated.

I put those attitudes down to the millennials’ intolerance for oversimplification, and their genuine desire for consistent, authentic collaboration, especially on issues relating to their personal wellbeing. For pointing that out, Miss Tan’s essay gets an A minus in my book.

Nonetheless, what is a stretch of causality is her suggestion that perpetuating gender stereotypes is tantamount to promoting a “rape culture”. To say generalisations about male/female traits are the same as encouraging assault on women is like saying that being aware of differences in skin colour is the same as a racist hate crime. 

Just what is rape culture? 

Author Emilie Buchwald’s description of the term in her book Transforming A Rape Culture goes like this: “A complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm… In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable.”

For stereotyping to lead to extreme behaviour, it must also be coupled with a call to aggression - and the FOTF booklet certainly does nothing of the sort.

Miss Tan also singles out pages 20 and 21, titled “She says” and “He says”, which by themselves might appear disrespectful to women, but in context provide a lighthearted break from a heavy topic. She also takes issue with the use of the word “gals” to describe young women, though Cambridge dictionary defines the phrase only as an informal or humorous word for woman or girl. (A more common use of the word “bitches” to refer to women in youth-speak, co-opted from R&B slang, insults more people.)

Having read the booklet cover to cover a few times, I’d say that what it does contain are various entry points calling for readers to think about what life partners they want. What it seeks to be, really, is a primer for marriage. What it does contain are generalisations, born of human perceptions of what occurs frequently - the long-time fodder of magazines we indulge in at the hairdresser.

A particularly useful page 15 segment even addresses how to break up with someone and move on with this tip: “Be kind. Your ex is not your enemy. If you happen to bump into each other, treat the person with kindness and respect as you would all your other friends. That’s far less awkward and painful than avoidance or ignoring your ex. It’s also much more sustainable.” The section does not assign blame to either sex, but suggests emotionally productive ways to get over hurt. (Hands up those who could have used such information at that age...)

For an A, Miss Tan’s treatise could have used two things: an inclusion of the views of others at the workshop, and the context of the entire booklet.

FOTF, meanwhile, could rethink labelling as “interesting facts” statements like: “Gals enjoy talking about what they feel. Music, drawing and writing are ways of expressing themselves (which explains why most girls like keeping journals).” Throwing in secular, scientific explanations for gender differences - Discovery Channel style - cannot hurt either.

A collaborative workshop format would, as well, be more in keeping with the times. How about allowing audiences to arrive at conclusions, rather than adopting a didactic approach? Create room for a discussion about what men and women both have in common, the ways in both need to feel attractive and appreciated, and reasons why everybody ought to think hard about telling the truth when anyone - male or female - asks if they look fat in an outfit.

No doubt participants might arrive at the same conclusion facilitators wanted all along: that everyone wants to be loved.

I say this from having interacted often with those between nine and 24 over the past decade, when I have noticed their becoming more curious about how they ought to be while navigating so many new dimensions. They have worries I never had, like whether to break up via text messages or email, managing the politics of envy on social media, or if their kids will have more stress in school than they do. They question the necessity of marriage, even though they want children.

They will not settle for stock answers, and do not want to be patronised.

In contemplating the generation gap that is the Internet, it is a David Bowie classic rock song from 1971 that puts it best: “These children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

Anyone attempting to engage millennials, particularly on matters of the heart, must consider its tone as much as its message, their varied points of reference as well as their need for open dialogue - or risk losing them altogether.

Serene Goh is The Straits Times’ Schools Editor in charge of student supplements IN and Little Red Dot.