Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sex in the city state

SINGAPORE, Sept 2 — Andrew Choo does not have the sort of background you would normally associate with someone involved in giving advice to teenagers about sex and sexuality.

The 48-year-old married father-of-two, trained in theology at Trinity Theological College, has worked as a school chaplain and youth pastor and has been a regular churchgoer all his life.

But instead of taking Bible study classes with teens, you are more likely to find him holding graphic discussions about pornography, and talking to teenagers in Singapore about the thorny issue of underage sex.

The founder and director of the Andrew and Grace Home in Mattar Road has been dealing with such issues for more than 20 years. And over that time he reckons he and his co-founder, wife Grace Koh, 46, have provided counselling to more than 1,000 teenagers.

Most of his work has been with girls referred to him by the courts and regarded as Beyond Parental Control — meaning parents have had to seek state help to rein in their children.

The girls are often sent to live at the Andrew and Grace Home where they receive support and follow structured rehabilitation programmes.

Eleven years ago, when the home first opened its doors, teens would approach Pastor Andrew mainly with relationship problems and only a handful would have experienced sex at the age of 18 or 19. This situation has been turned on its head.

“Now they have sex at 12, and they even talk about oral sex,” says Pastor Andrew, who worked at Yishun Christian Church before starting the home.

“They used to come to me to talk about broken relationships. Now it's Internet porn, sex and pregnancy,” he says.

Given this turnaround, it does not come as much of a surprise to be told that nationwide, the number of teenagers getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV has been rocketing.

Last year, 787 teens caught STIs, more than three times the 238 cases in 2002. As for HIV, the figure rose from one in 2002 to nine in 2007.

The total number of teenage abortions last year was 1,289 and 850 women under 20 had babies in 2005, up from 731 in 2003.

Sex crimes have also been on the rise. Statistics released early this month show that the number of statutory rape cases involving girls under 14 jumped from 21 in the first half of last year, to 37 cases in the first half of this year.

The pastor's view is that a range of factors are responsible for driving the problem of underage sex and the widespread prevalence of pre-marital sex.

“It's all an ecosystem,” he says.

“With economic success comes busy parents who are unable to spend time imparting values to their children. And with more affluence, people can afford to drink, party and have fun. They forget about morals.”

He thinks the rising divorce rate is also key.

The number of divorces and annulments in Singapore jumped from 6,561 five years ago, to 7,220 last year and looks set to rise further.

The crude rate of divorce was two per 1,000 resident population last year, compared with 1.3 per 1,000 resident population in 1990.

“If a child sees you going through a divorce, they may think it's such a hassle getting married. Why not just have sex and not worry about marriage.”

Another contributing factor to the teen sex problem is what he terms 'sexual stimulants', such as promiscuous celebrities, suggestive television programmes, sex in advertisements and Internet pornography.

“When I was a teenager it was so difficult to find porn. Now at the click of a button it's there on the computer or on their phones,” he says.

In the face of an over-abundance of sexual stimulants, he admits that parents have an uphill struggle these days keeping their loved ones on the straight and narrow.

The key, he says, is for parents to tackle such influences head-on with their children.

He admits that sometimes the girls at the Andrew and Grace Home — who are also there for drug use, skipping school, and teen pregnancy — invite him to watch porn in the hope of shocking, provoking or embarrassing him.

Instead of sweeping it under the carpet, he uses it as an opportunity for education, asking them to explore what exactly they get out of watching porn.

“I tell them sex is something pure. It's something you share with someone you love, and for the purpose of procreation. Porn is not love, it's exploitation.”

A straight-talker who uses colourful language in this speech, Pastor Andrew admits he is willing to discuss anything — from the human anatomy to anal sex and bondage.

As an educator or parent, he says, it is important to remain open.

It is better for children to explore sexuality with parents than with their friends. And, as a parent of two boys aged 20 and 17, he practises what he preaches. He told his sons about the facts of life when they were just six.

“At that young age they are not embarrassed, so it's a good time to impart values. Then they view sexual intercourse as an honourable thing,” he adds.

He thinks this sort of education cannot be left to schools and teachers alone.

While teenagers can gain 'head knowledge' at school, he says it is not the same as learning from a parental role model.

Pastor Andrew and his wife try to act as parents to the 55 girls at their home — who even call them Apa and Mummy — and strive to be open and honest about their own live.

“I tell them we have sex,” he admits candidly. “But, we are different from them because we are married.”

Open conversations about sex are just one part of the equation. It is also important for parents to tell children what is happening in their own lives.

“Don't be afraid to tell the truth,” he says. “If you have a broken marriage, talk about it. Tell your children you fell in love with another woman. Children already know what is happening, so don't be a fool and think you can hide it.”

This way teens will continue to honour marriage, family and children, he says.

In addition to having an open approach when dealing with teens, the pastor is a keen advocate of self-control, which he says is vital to teach at home and in school.

A girl may be attractive, but a boy must honour her and learn to stop himself at a kiss. As for girls, they must learn to say no and not be pressured by boyfriends into having sex.

Giving in, he tells girls, will not make boys love you more.

He remembers a sexuality class he conducted once where a boy confessed to getting aroused when he looked at girls' breasts.

“You can't just tell him it's normal. You must also tell him how to control himself. I told him he should turn his mind away from the breasts and think about his mother's breasts instead. I don't think he got excited after that,” he says with a chuckle. — Straits Times

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