WAS it wrong for award-winning school teacher Alias Ismail to be so upfront about his sex life? When asked for the secret of his career success, he credited reading a book with his wife, having a good conversation, and then having sex before going to sleep. Every night, apparently.
Was it shameful for the 42-year-old Bahasa Malaysia teacher from Terengganu to openly talk about his enjoyment of sex within the context of what appears to be a healthy, legitimate and loving relationship?
The reactions to Alias’s revelation betray an archaic hypocrisy towards sex. Alias was both criticised and praised. Criticised because he offended the hypersensitive sensibilities of some people who fear that more illegitimate sex will now take place. A columnist in Chinese-language newspaper Sin Chew Daily said Alias was being illogical and misleading by relating his teaching career to sexual enjoyment. The columnist suggested Alias see a psychologist to “get his indulgence fixed up”.
But the teacher was also praised because others recognised his honesty, even if a little off-topic, as testimony about the effort that goes into keeping a relationship and family happily intact.
And this, I think, is what the Alias’s story is all about. He wasn’t talking about sex for the sake of it, but about its importance to his 25-year marriage and about teaching his children the right circumstances for having sex. Alias’s openness and clear understanding about the role and right context for sex is a contrast to our waffling, never-ending public debate for and against teaching sex education in schools. Alias embodies some key points of what sex education ought to prepare young people for – 1) the right time and context for sex, 2) faithfulness to one partner, and, if one doesn’t want monogamy, 3) safe sex.
Underlying our collective hypocrisy towards sex is a false sense of shame perpetuated by the mixed messages we put out about sex. That it is taboo and disgraceful, when actually, sex is a major preoccupation of pop culture, media, religion and politics.
Pop culture: An oft-cited example is Beyonce. She’s not allowed to perform in Malaysia in person because of her revealing outfits, but there she is in all her curvaceous glory on our screens on TV music video channels. Or how about overt sexuality in some TV sitcoms, dramas and movies? Or both subliminal and direct messages in fashion and relationship advice dispensed in magazines catered to teenage girls, women and men, respectively?
Media: Alias’s story was apparently important enough to be on page three of The Star the first day it ran. Sure, the story was interesting, but it was more titillating and a curiosity than being newsworthy or of public interest. And on any given day, just check the “Most Read” section of some internet newspapers to see how sex-related the most popular stories are.
Religion: In Islam, sexual sins are publicly penalised in the name of protecting the religion or to return the “sinner” to the right path. Offenders are made “examples” of, supposedly to deter others from committing the same sin. In church circles, while there is no state interference, there is sometimes a skewered perception that sexual sins are the “worst” kind of sins. However, scriptural text also teaches that gossiping, lying, envy and injustice are just as sinful, too. The Catholic Church is currently going through one of its most testing periods of public credibility as its leaders grapple with the cover-up of sexual crimes committed by its clergy.
Politics: Just look at the second trial of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy. His accuser, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, was the joke on Twitter when he testified about how Anwar supposedly asked him for sex, and when he said he didn’t wash for two days to keep evidence of the alleged sodomy. Or what about Kinabatangan lawmaker Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin’s taking a second wife in violation of syariah law, and the mild reaction from fellow politicians?
What does all this show? That newsmakers are preoccupied with sex; the media that reports on them loves sexing up stories; and consumers are just as enthralled by sex-related stories.
Sex, shame and society
I believe there is a link between society’s prejudiced and voyeuristic attitude towards sex and the lack of sex education. I also believe in a link between this ignorance and prejudice with violent crimes against women and children, and what some call “moral decay” or “social ills”. And given our collective fixation on sex, it is an injustice to our young people and victims of sex crimes that we don’t come clean about our hypocrisy and advocate for sex education in schools.
It is an injustice to the teenage girls raped for an extended period by a serial rapist taxi driver because they were ashamed to report his abuse. It is an injustice to victims of incest when their families have a false sense of shame and disbelieve them or urge against lodging police reports.
We let ourselves be bombarded by sexual messages everyday but do little to teach our children and women that shame is not theirs if they are victims whose rights have been violated. We read with disgust about babies dumped in rubbish bins or toilets but avoid talking about sex with our teenagers. Some are against the new effort to set up a baby hatch where unprepared mothers can leave their newborns in a safe, clean and caring environment, and yet offer no solutions about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
The teachers’ union has said teachers are ill-equipped to teach sex education, and concurs with the Education Ministry that it’s better to incorporate it into other subjects, as is currently the practice. But how effective is this, assuming it’s really happening? I for one, remember my Form One biology teacher telling my class to “go home and read yourself” the chapter on reproductive organs. If teachers have too many subjects plus curricular activities and administrative work to handle, the teaching of sex education can be conducted on a one-off or scheduled basis by reputable non-government organisations. It just takes some thought and the will to get it done.
Sex education should not just be about reproduction, but about what healthy and respectful relationships involve. Going further, this kind of education should not be limited to schools, but include adults as well.
So I think Cikgu Alias has hit on something right. He’s shown us sex in a healthy and happy context. If only we’d tell ourselves not to be so titillated by his story, and look at the values he’s promoting instead. We could have more honest relationships with our partners, a wholesome understanding of sex and gender, and a better society with less fear and stigma towards survivors of sexual crimes. Terima kasih, Cikgu.
Deborah Loh is thankful for parents who spoke to her frankly about sex.
Read previous Sideways columns
The Nut Graph needs your support