When 22-year-old Abegail Abregana needs to know something about sex, she looks to YouTube as her new teacher.
“Usually po kasi before pandemic, yung information na nakukuha natin, usually po from teachers... sa health teachers, sa people of authority po. Pero ngayon pong pandemic, kung sino na lang po yung mas may audience sa platform, sila po yung nabo-boost ng algorithm,” Abregana shares.
Her trusted YouTube channel is Jubilee Media, which has a sex education series where they ask different volunteers to share their experiences — from parents and children, to couples. She also does her research on Google, Facebook, and TikTok.
Abregana recognizes that the wide array of sources available online also means that not everything boosted can be trusted. Fortunately for her, she knows how to double check a post’s references — a skill that many other people online still need to practice. She recalls a suspicious Reddit post touting various concoctions that would prevent pregnancy after sex, for example.
But even with the trustworthy resources online, Abregana laments that the majority of what she reads are foreign-centric stories, and that there is still a lack of information that caters to the Philippine context.
She says, “I guess yung example ko lang din po since nakikita ko nga po sa information online about like birth control options, gusto ko rin po malaman or curious lang po to know kung ano yung options natin dito sa Philippines. Usually parang walang masyadong information on [what is] available available, unless kayo po yung physically pupunta sa mga clinics or hospitals.”
But beyond gaps in information, one more downside to the increased reliance on social media for sex education in this pandemic are deliberate misinformation campaigns.
Junice Melgar, Executive Director of Likhaan Center for Women's Health, says that those against sex education are using social media to push the misconception that sex and sexuality are evil, and are worse than stealing, hurting, or even killing others.
“In response to the national efforts to reduce teen pregnancy, there was a counter campaign in social media to promote teen pregnancy as a cause for joy and fulfilment among young girls,” Melgar says. “There was also a campaign to demolish contraceptives, particularly implants, for their alleged harmful effects such as causing cancer and abortion, among others.”
Ever seen posts saying children are blessings so teen moms should be grateful? How about posts shaming teen girls for their pregnancies, but also shaming those who turn to contraceptives? It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation when it comes to sex discussions online.
“This norm — imbibed by parents, teachers, health workers, decision-makers and even by youth themselves — is what has kept the country from adopting evidence-based methods for preventing teen pregnancy, STIs and HIV-AIDS,” she adds.
Curriculum and convergence
So do we actually have sex ed in our schools? Yes. In fact, the Department of Education (DepEd) has rolled out a Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) K to 12 Curriculum Guide starting with Regions 1, 7, and 11 — regions with the supposed highest rate of teen pregnancy. Accompanying the curriculum are DepEd teacher trainings on CSE.
But lesson plans aren’t enough, and the government has acknowledged this by aiming to link classroom lessons to actual reproductive health interventions in community facilities. To combat the continuous rise of teenage pregnancy rates in the country, President Rodrigo Duterte enacted Executive Order (EO) 141, which prioritizes the implementation of measures addressing adolescent pregnancies in the country and mobilizes government agencies for the said purpose.
DepEd has since then partnered with the Department of Health (DOH) and the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) in launching the Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Adolescent Reproductive Health (CSE-ASRH) Convergence, which is a whole-of-government response to reproductive health issues among the youth.
DepEd Usec. Juan Antonio Perez III says, “With the convergence of POPCOM, DepEd, and DOH under CSE-ARH, we believe our synergies, guided by the tenets of EO 141, will soon curb the numbers of unplanned pregnancies among adolescents. This convergence is an immediate response to the call of EO 141 for a whole-of-government approach in addressing early childbirths nationwide.”
From demonizing sex to viewing it positively
So it seems that different bases are being covered, but CSE advocates are raising questions about the details of the plan.
Advocates are pointing out that the current government curriculum is still based on conservative values. What they would like to see instead is the usage of the positive sexuality framework, which is an approach that teaches sex as a natural and healthy part of life, instead of something that should be shamed.
Jona Turalde, Vice-Chairperson of the Guiding Group of SheDecides and Nominations and Governance Committee Member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, says that although there is concrete progress nationally, implementation and messaging should still be analyzed.
Turalde says, “For us, norm change is essential as to how young people should view their sexual lives and love lives and not being boxed in [by] this idea of "courting, dating then marriage." This is an important example because the proposed curriculum that DepEd made still looks at "Filipino values" as a priority, and messaging is still heteronormative rather than improving the education of young Filipinos for them to have informed decisions about their reproductive lives.”
“For us, norm change is essential as to how young people should view their sexual lives and love lives and not being boxed in [by] this idea of "courting, dating then marriage."
Dr. Melgar shares that civil society organizations (CSOs) like them aren’t privy to the actual key messages, since these are outputs of internal DepEd workshops. So on their end, CSOs like Likhaan continue to push for alternative, youth-centered materials, keeping in mind how government institutions usually lean towards religious pressure for sexual and reproductive health (SRH) matters.
“We are merely relying on the CSE standards that we, together with 25 other resource persons (including 4 from DepEd) proposed to DepEd — that this would have a positive sexuality framework, and that, while anchored on delaying sexual activity, especially in the elementary grades, it will add condoms and contraceptives after Grade 6. We are also relying on DepEd to follow their 2017 policy guidelines that describe the topics, values and life-skills that will be integrated in five subjects (science, health, social studies, values and personality development). These include developing self-esteem, respect for others, assertiveness-building, decisions-making, etc, apart from pregnancy-and-STI prevention.”
Implementation woes also hound sex ed efforts in the country, starting with the fact that this is being rolled out a decade too late, and that implementation on the ground requires a revisit on partners’ roles and locations.
“This implementation of the law is very much delayed considering that sex ed was not questioned before the Supreme Court between 2012 and 2014 — there have nine years (and two administrations) since the RH Law mandated sex ed. There is further delay because of the restrictions imposed by COVID and the relatively slow pace of DepEd in adjusting to online mode,” Dr. Melgar says.
“What we see is lacking here is concrete youth leadership, and at a local level SK involvement. We had a consultation with NYC [National Youth Commission] about EO 141 but there isn't much clarity on the role of the commission in CSE specifically… Additionally, current implementation is all school-focused. How can we reach young people who are out-of-school, young people with disabilities, young indigenous people etc,” Turalde says.
On the road to positive sex ed in the pandemic
But a healthy sex education can still be attainable, even despite limitations set by the pandemic. There are in fact several entertaining online education efforts that young people can already check out. Dr. Melgar cites Amaze.org, a project of the Advocates for Youth in the US that produces age-appropriate, often humorous sex education videos for adolescents, younger kids and parents; and Likhaan’s very own chatbot Kai (short for Kaibigan), which can answer a wide range of SRH questions.
Beyond these fun resources, what other steps should be taken to further improve the implementation of sex education in the Philippines? Dr. Melgar cites four things: 1) Clarify that the sexuality education framework that the country will operationalize on a broad scale matter will go beyond abstinence and towards access to condoms and contraceptives; 3) De-stigmatize the sexual activity of young people and their use of condoms and contraceptives, and 4) Budget for and provide protective services to sexually active young people, including condoms and contraceptives, as CSE without services is meaningless and self-defeating.
If these points of collaboration between government and civil society are realized, more young people like Abregana can hopefully absorb the notion that sexuality is about feeling good with one’s body and relationships, and is quite simply an intrinsic part of being human.
“Sa pinapanood ko na videos sa Jubilee, meron dun pong part after na tinatanong sila if ever ‘What would they have done differently sa situation po nila?’ And yun po talaga yung sinasabi nila: make sex ed hindi taboo na pag-usapan in public para magkaroon ng engaging conversation on sex ed,” Abregana says.