Tackling the Taboo

Finding contacts relating to HIV education and sexual health curriculum proved relatively easy. My first appointment was with Professor Khemika Yamarat at one of the country’s best universities, Chulalongkorn University (commonly referred to as "Chula") located in the heart of Siam, one of Bangkok’s famous commercial districts. 

293 We met over lunch in the Center for Research and Sexuality Development located in the University’s Institute of Public Health building to discuss her work. Dr. Yamarat is involved in Chula’s innovative Master of Science program in Human Sexuality, a collaboration between the Institute of Health Research, the Faculty of Psychology, as well as the Faculty of medicine and the Graduate School.

295 a brochure for the program

 

The program was started in reaction to the lack of expertise and institutional initiative to investigate the vast array of social problems related to sexuality such as HIV, teenage pregnancy and sexual harassment.

Contrary to popular conceptions of Thai culture, Dr. Yamarat explained, public discourses on sexuality are more suppressed than private practices.  In other words, sex is not a topic that is supposed to be openly discussed.  As a result, parents and teachers abstain from discussions with children, who are, in turn, forced to teach themselves through peers or the internet.  And—not surprisingly, kids get the wrong information from these sources, which can have “long-term consequences.”

Chula launched this program a decade ago with the intention of training a more informed generation of sex education experts.  Masters students in the program host a workshop for professionals involved in sex education, which attracts schoolteachers and nurses from all over the country.

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 “Attitude and skill” are the aims of the workshop: to make participants open to discussing issues of sexuality and to turn them into competent educators, as many often lack a basic understanding of the subject.  The workshop also provides participants with a supplementary sex-ed curriculum, devised by Chula researchers, which incorporates discussion topics such as HIV, substance use, relationships, pregnancy and sexual violence.

296 some of Chula's curricular resources for sex education

 

 

 

 

 

  Dr. Yamarat stressed the importance of discussing such issues, as teenagers become sexually active at younger ages, causing pregnancy (and HIV pregnancy) rates to rise, especially in light of abortion’s illegal status in Thailand. 

Abortion illegal?  This had not even crossed my mind as a possibility, perhaps because I assumed a country renowned for providing sex change operations would naturally take a more liberal stance on abortion.  But, according to Dr. Yamarat, such policies are rooted in the Buddhist beliefs about life.

 Despite the precedent for and practical applicability of Chula’s Master’s program, the program is “in the process of transition” due to a shortage of student interest. Dr. Yamarat cited the program’s name as the cause for its unpopularity. “Too obvious for the culture,” Dr. Yamarat lamented. The college of Public Health also offers a similar program with a less provocative name: “Reproductive Health.” This program just so happens to be quite popular. 

297 A look inside one of Chula's textbooks Dr. Yamarat assured me that the Institute would try to preserve some elements of the Sexuality program such as the workshop for teachers and nurses.  I am certainly curious to see what happens with the future of the program.  Will --in fact-- a subtler title be the solution for this field of research?   

When I asked Dr. Yamarat to explain the causes behind the recent increase in HIV among teenagers, she provided quite an interesting response, citing the rate of cultural change, which has been significant among the young generation in the last decade: 

“Before HIV, when men had experiences with women before they were married, they would go to the sex workers—but during the HIV epidemic, sex workers were thought to be the cause of HIV—men turned to their girlfriends for sex– this is why premarital sex is growing -- In the old days, premarital sex rates were not so high-- Now that men have gone to their girlfriends –culture has changed—but condom use is still not prevalent—after the HIV epidemic, condoms were thought to be something men only use with sex workers not girlfriends.”

 Pre-marital sex spread in response to HIV but now is spreading HIV... An example of a problem solved creating the old problem anew...?