Coffee, tea or sex?

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Vietnamese youth participate in a flashmob dance in Hanoi on September 23. Experts have attributed the early age at which Vietnamese youth are having sex to a more relaxed attitude towards premarital sex, especially among older age groups, males and urbanites.

"Poor me," a Facebook user wrote. "I didn't have sex till I was 22."

He was responding Monday to news reports about a study that said the average age at which Vietnamese first have sex is 18.8. The reports stirred a lot of discussion and comments among netizens.

The Facebook commenter might have felt distinctly old and passé when, just two days later, another study released at a national conference found Vietnamese youth were having first sex at 14, and in some rare cases, at 10.

The study, done by Nguyen Duy Tai, a doctor at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Medicine and Pharmacy, surveyed 350 female students who sought pregnancy treatment or abortions at a health center and two major obstetrics hospitals in HCMC.

"A majority of students surveyed confirmed they first had sex at age 14," Tai told Vietweek.

The findings might not represent the general picture of first sex among Vietnamese adolescents as it was conducted with a small sample, but Tai said "anyway they are very worrisome" in a country where adolescents have been taught for centuries to remain chaste until marriage, to dress conservatively, and to refrain from openly discussing sex.

The Survey Assessment on Vietnamese Youth 2010, Vietnam's most comprehensive study about youth to date, found that average age at first sex for Vietnamese youth was 18.1, one and a half years younger than a similar survey done in 2005.

Experts have attributed the early age at which Vietnamese youth are having sex to a more relaxed attitude towards premarital sex, especially among older age groups, males and urbanites. A number of studies have also shown that nowadays young people are sexually active at the same age as their parents, but the difference is that their parents were married and they are not.

Vietnam's young, tech-savvy population is also turning to the Internet to get sex education, experts say.

But most of the youth are not learning anything about it from their parents, they say.

One "side-effect" of the propensity to have sex very early is the high number of abortions seen in Vietnam.

The General Office for Population Family Planning estimates that around one million abortions, which have been legal in Vietnam since 1954, are done per year in the country. The World Health Organization has said the country's abortion rate is among the highest in the world.

According to the Health Ministry, each year, around 300,000 abortions are carried out for women between 15 and 19 years old, and an average of one woman dies per week because of unsafe abortions.

Gender inequality - which increases the rate of sex-selective abortions - and a lack of sex education and contraceptive have also been identified as major causes for the high abortion rate.

The implications of this goes beyond abortions to other health issues like sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, experts have warned in recent years.

"The Vietnamese youth desperately need better sex education, especially from their parents who don't pay enough attention to this very important matter," Tai said.

Parents' reluctance to discuss issues about sex openly and frankly has been attributed to the fact that open discussions about sex is still taboo in a country where Confucian mores still dominate social discourse. Parents have, in turn, passed the sex education buck to teachers and schools.

The bottom line, experts say, is that neither the parents nor the teachers are well-equipped to educate teenagers who are exposed to completely different circumstances and information in the digital age than the earlier generation.

"Both the parents and the teachers were not taught about sex education in the old days," said Khuat Thi Hai Oanh, a Hanoi-based sociologist who directs the nonprofit Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives.

"The most important thing is not to prevent the youth from having premarital sex, but to teach them how to have safe sex. Almost everybody has learned to come to grips with this,"  she said.

Today, young people between 10 to 24 years represent almost a third of Vietnam's total population of around 88 million people, according to the United Nations. Two-thirds of the country's population was born after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The study which put the average age of first sex at 18.8 also said half the respondents did not know how to use condoms. The study, done by the Hanoi-based Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, surveyed 800 people aged between 14 and 24.

Experts have continued to beat the "urgent need" drum on providing sex education to children under 15. They say since children these days grow up sooner than before, especially in big cities, it is necessary to teach them about reproductive health at 11 years instead of the current 16.

Tai, the HCMC doctor, called for better cooperation between schools and doctors so that the latter could provide better counseling to the youth on a more regular basis.

"I only wish the parents had known that if they were more open to their kids about sex, chances of them getting unexpected pregnancies and seeking abortions would have reduced dramatically," Tai said.

In particular, she stressed the need to teach girls and young women how to say no when their male partners pressurize them to have sex.

However, Nguyen Thi Quy Hien, a 33-year-old mother in District 4, said most Vietnamese are very reluctant to talk openly with their kids about sex.

"I don't know how to explain, but it's indeed very difficult to do so," said Hien, whose daughter is seven years old.

Asked how she would educate her daughter about sex, Hien said: "I'll be talking to her about that anyway, but probably just on a superficial basis."

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