“Teacher must be like DR. MARGIE HOLMES,” says the bold print written by a teenager on a poster-sized piece of neon pink paper. If only we could all be as bright and charismatic as the smiling, yellow-clad speaker that had just guided 60 high school and college students through a rather uninhibited discussion on sex. The dynamic discussion lead by Dr. Margie Holmes was intended to answer questions and warm the students up for really digging into the process of designing a sex education curriculum that they would like to see in their Filipino schools, once the country’s controversial RH Law is enacted. It was no surprise that the students loved Dr. Holmes’ bold, magnetic, and thought-provoking discussion. I think that the student who wants sex ed. teachers to be just like her was referring to her ability to create a safe-space, where no topic was off-limits, and all questions were good questions — no matter how gritty. During one part of the seminar that seemed to be comically stuck on the topic of masturbation, a teacher at PSU leaned over to me and whispered, “this is really something — the kids never get the opportunity to ask questions like these.” What these kids really need to discuss issues relating to sex is a space that they feel safe in, so they can ask any questions they want, and so they can recognize and address the natural confusion that comes along with being a teenager and a human.
Roots of Health invited Margie Holmes to speak and facilitated the students’ curriculum creation as part of a celebration of their four-year anniversary as an NGO. The current status of the RH Law marks a pivotal time in reproductive health history for the Philippines, and for Roots of Health it marks the opening of a door to being able to offer more health information and access to services to the people of Palawan.
During the curriculum writing session, students were divided up into groups of ten, with the high school students grouped separately from the college students. Each group was given time to brainstorm and plan, then asked to present their ideas to the larger group. Each group highlighted one point that they thought was the most interesting or important aspect of their curriculum.
For the most part, the students came up with topics for discussion in their curricula that match the modules that Roots of Health already teaches; reproductive systems, STIs, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, healthy relationships, contraceptives, and puberty. The interesting, new ideas that they came up with, however, deal with some controversial and challenging moral issues.
Facilitating an understanding and tolerance of issues related to homosexuality and sexual orientation is challenging on a global scale, and here in the Philippines it is no different. The students made it very clear that this is something they want to address during sex education classes. During the writing process they asked many questions, such as, “What is the difference between being homosexual or just confused?” And “is there a cure for homosexuality?” They wanted to know if being gay is a decision that people make. Clearly, these questions are ones that these teenagers are commonly faced with, and they need guidance in answering them.
Another common interest in the groups of students was surrounding masturbation, which is attributed to a (global) culture of shame, and also impacts self-esteem. Masturbation, in most of the world, is not considered a natural expression of self-love, rather the urges to do it are considered dirty and abnormal. Addressing questions that these students have about it in sex education classes and giving them a space to discuss it could provide them with a chance to release some aspects of themselves that they may not even be aware of repressing.
A third theme that continually came up was the issue of how to deal with the contradiction between long-standing conservative views about sexuality in Philippine culture, and the more Westernized, liberal, scientifically health-based beliefs that students are presented with in our classes and in the media. Students want to learn how to manage different information and beliefs regarding sex and religion. Because the Philippines is predominantly Catholic, this is especially important to discuss because it is a prevalent moral dilemma for the kids growing up in this culture. However, it is also somewhat controversial for the Roots of Health teaching team to veer from their science-based curricula, to a more value-based discussion. It is difficult to address these issues in classrooms because there are so many people that could potentially be offended by different opinions.
As a visiting American in Palawan, I am struck by the complexities of teaching sex education. The lack of reproductive health knowledge and services here come from deeply-rooted cultural norms. The Roots of Health teachers are very intentional about how and what they teach, and they do a remarkably good job. Hopefully, through the Margie Holmes discussion and finding out what exactly the students want to learn, Roots of Health will be able to supply what the students demand, and address these complex moral issues as they come.