I was quoted in the article ‘Sexualised’ uni camps spark fierce debate in The Sunday Times on Sunday 31 July 2016.
A story had broke earlier in the week that university orientation camps have become too “sexualised” and sparked a fierce debate. The issue prompted the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Friday to suspend all such camps.
Clinical sexologist Martha Tara Lee said the instances of lewd and disrespectful games could be partially due to the lack of comprehensive sexuality education that emphasises consent.
“Since sex is considered a sensitive taboo, making exaggerated shows of bravado about sex might seem ‘adult’ but in reality, it is an overcompensation of their own ignorance and discomfort around sex,” she said.
You can read the full article here.
I had actually given extensive answers but they were not used due to space constraints. As such, I am posting my original answers to the journalist (after checking in with her that it was alright to do so):\
Can you further explain why you think these so-called ‘risqué’ games are being played because of Singaporeans’ level of discomfort with sexuality?
Didn’t Outgrow “Jokes” Phase – Back when we were in primary school, sex-related jokes, innuendos, or insults were the most offensive one could do to another. It would escalate to teasing, or even bullying e.g. “look at how your breasts would bounce”. Even though university students are no longer kids, they are still young adults and might lack the emotional and sexual maturity that we assume or expect of them.
Could be a Rite of Passage – Surviving these ‘risqué’ games (some kind of trial and tribulation) might have become a rite of passage – not dissimilar to fraternity pledge rituals in overseas college.
Bravado about Sex – Since sex is considered a sensitive topic, making exaggerated shows of bravado (or seeming comfort) about sex might seem “adult” and in reality, an over-compensation of their own ignorance and discomfort around sex. Anything that has a taboo aspect holds allure for the young – something is only “dirty”, “hot” or whatever when it’s considered “forbidden fruit.”
Wait Until Marriage – Unlike most overseas colleges in good standing, none of our universities have a human sexuality elective or course. As a society, we are failing our kids by expecting them to wait until after marriage to have sex. It would be precisely why sex games hold fascination. It is the extent of what they feel they could do when they know they “shouldn’t” touch sex with a ten-feet pole. Sex can turn into something they obsess over, because they can’t have it (and have no sexuality education or honest matured dialogues around it).
It’s not about sex, but power over others – In the dialogue about ‘risqué’ games, we might have forgotten how sex is more than just about sex, but a form of asserting oneself over others and having a hold over them. Power, control and authority all have an erotic aspect to them – something which would naturally appeal to student leaders.
A case in point is the infamous Stanford University prison experiment which was abruptly ended 46 years ago after treatment of pseudoprisoners by pseudoguards, both played by students, escalated too far for the researchers to tolerate. It is a notorious example of the unexpected degeneration and breakdown of the established rules and morals dictating exactly how people should behave towards each other. The study created more new questions than it answered, about the amorality and darkness that inhabits the human psyche. The ethical implications of this study are still discussed in college and undergraduate psychology classes all across the world. Systematic abuse and denial of human rights is never far away in prisons. And while student orientations are opt-in, media reports of the treatment of some students who were coerced to take part are not dissimilar from what happened in this experiment.
Eroticism around these games – Building on the above point on power and control, sadomasochism, a subset of BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism), is the giving or receiving of pleasure from acts involving the receipt or infliction of pain or humiliation. While the terms sadist and masochist refer respectively to one who enjoys giving or receiving pain, practitioners of sadomasochism may switch between activity and passivity. The student leaders who initiated these games might be abusing their power and getting their own form of sexual gratification, while others are unwitting accomplices.
Do Singaporean students largely have ‘unhealthy attitudes’ towards sex – a lot of innuendo and play without understanding of what healthy sexuality constitutes?
I would never call our Singaporean students as having “unhealthy attitudes” towards sex. Our young would naturally be, and should rightly be, curious about sex and sexuality. Like money, it is not the root of all evil – but the lack of understanding. Let’s not make sex the enemy or victim here. Instead I would call it sexual ignorance due to the lack of sexuality education. When failed by a self-declared “Asian values” society where sexuality education in schools remains a contentious topic due to pressure from religious groups, I continue to work with clients whose long-term sexual problem might not even exist if they had some basic sex education to begin with. Many blame their parents for indirectly causing their sexuality and relationship issues.
A case in point is Vaginismus (the most common sexual issue couples who are married come to me for). It is a sexual phobia where women are unable to have vaginal penetration of any form. I strongly feel that the lack of comprehensive sexuality education has resulted in a nation of sexually ignorant (not to mention sexually repressed and inhibited) youth who grow up to become adults. Give them a bit of autonomy and naturally this becomes an “asking-for-it” situation.
What are the gaping holes in sexuality education in Singapore?
Singapore had decided to have a “more abstinence-based sexuality education program” (whatever that means). Contrary to what a lot of people assume, comprehensive sexuality education is not just about how to have sex or safer sex. It is everything to do with how we are as sexual beings – from our body image, relationships, communication, consent, sensuality and sexuality as an individual.
Is it problematic that universities are ‘cracking down’ on any mention of sex and do you think that it would be counter-intuitive?
Yes, as this can go underground, and be conducted in more dangerous circumstances and situations, with dire consequences.
Does an abstinence-only approach mean that students are not educated about what consent means?
It really depends on the scope of the syllabus. Having not seen it, I cannot add anything to this question though my understanding is that sexuality education, if at all conducted, is sporadic at best.
Is it important for youth to have open, frank discussions about sex and consent instead of sweeping it all under the carpet and lumping any kind of discussion about sexuality, or expression of sexuality as inappropriate?
Yes the student leaders involved should go for some sexuality sensitization training which unfortunately I feel not many people in Singapore are equipped to teach.
For years, as the only certified sexologist and certified AASECT sexuality educator with a doctorate in human sexuality in Singapore, I have reached out to work with MOE without success. I’ve been in practice for 7 years and nothing seems to have changed when it comes to an abstinence-based approach in sexuality education in Singapore.
Do you think that some public reactions to the games are unfair? For example, everything is being lumped together as inappropriate – the sexual nature of the games, the discomfort of those who don’t want to participate, and the promotion of a sexuality that doesn’t blink an eye at consent.
It does seem it is safer to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. When we talk about our youth, we need to recognize that they are feeling their way around the world we live in and need to have a balance between independence and unconditional support. Traditional parenting methods of the iron rod, over-bearingness “do only what I tell you”, or avoidance “wait till you grow up” only leads to sexual fear and ignorance, repression and shut-down.
The pendulum swing of the other side of over-exposure to sex is the lack of. We want to give all our students the information, skills, knowledge within our capability. We want to be available to inform, educate, and counsel them in all areas, not just sex, through their formative years. Therefore, I like to encourage parents and schools to accurate and comprehensive sexuality education, so as to be support them in being about to grow up to sexually confident adults.
While you’re here, you might like to read my forum letter titled “Parents must provide kids appropriate sex education” published in The Straits Times on 1 July 2016 here.
Who is Martha?
Founder of Eros Coaching, Dr. Martha Tara Lee is a Clinical Sexologist in Singapore who has a doctorate in human sexuality. She also holds certificates in counselling, coaching and sex therapy. In practice for seven years now, she is the only certified sexuality educator by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) in Singapore. This accolade is only for those who meet the stringent requirements determined by AASECT, which is the leading professional organization for sexuality educators, sexuality counselors and sex therapists in the United States.
Often cited in the local media, Dr. Lee is the appointed sex expert for Men’s Health Singapore, and Men’s Health Malaysia. She was recognised as one of ‘Top 50 Inspiring Women Under 40′ by Her World in July 2010, and one of ‘Top 100 Inspiring Women’ by CozyCot in March 2011. She has published two books: Love, Sex and Everything In-Between, and Orgasmic Yoga.
Martha works with individuals and couples in private coaching sessions, and conducts her own workshops. She takes prides in making sure all her workshops are also fun, educational, and sex-positive. This comes easily to her because even though she is extremely dedicated and serious about her work, she fundamentally believes that sex is meant to be fun, wonderful, amazing and sacred. As such, this serious light-heartedness has shone through again and again. You can read the testimonials she’s received over her seven years of practice here. For her full profile, click here.