I Talked About Sex With Singaporeans—Their Reaction Surprised Me

I taught the notoriously prudish country's teenagers Shakespeare. Yes, even the dirty parts.

Die Elfenkönigin Titania streichelt den eselsköpfigen Zettel (Henry Fuseli/Wikimedia commons)

"What words come to mind when I say 'William Shakespeare'?" I asked the group of 17- and 18-year-old Singaporean high school students sitting in front of me. "Just say whatever comes to mind," I added. "There are no wrong answers."

"Timeless," one boy offered. "Profound," said another. Then the group fell silent.

"Great," I said. "Shakespeare's plays are definitely timeless and profound." Almost in unison, the students leaned over their desks to write 'timeless' and 'profound' in their notebooks. (Several of them doubtless were tempted to write 'boring' as well--at this point in the talk, I certainly would have been.)

"But there is one word I never hear," I continued. "And it's always the first word that pops into my head when I think of Shakespeare." I turned on my slideshow and flipped to the first slide. Projected onto the screen, in bold capital letters and surrounded with a sparkling star animation I found online, was a single word: "SEX!"

A momentary hush fell over the students, and then they started to laugh. From the back of the auditorium, I even heard a few amused cheers and claps. The students' teacher, smiling, nodded in approval.

"I think Shakespeare is the sexiest writer in the world," I said. "So let's talk about sex." In all of the schools I visited around the country, not a single teacher demanded that I omit the sexier parts of my Shakespeare lecture in favor of pure iambic pentameter. In fact, many of them invited me to come back the following year. Welcome to the new Singapore.

For decades, the tiny island nation nursed an international reputation of being serious, conservative, and--well, unsexy. In 2003, a survey found that Singaporeans had the least sex of people all the countries surveyed (granted, the study was sponsored by Durex, the condom company), and the more prudish aspects of Singapore's criminal code, such as the legal bans on homosexuality, pornography, and oral sex (unless part of foreplay), haven't helped dispel that stodgy reputation. It's even technically illegal for Singaporeans to walk around naked in their own homes.

But times are changing. With its military and economic stability relatively secured, Singapore's sexual identity is blossoming in ways that are creative, compelling, and even risky. In the past year, Singaporean theater companies have staged sexually provocative productions such as Spring Awakening, a musical that describes homosexuality and masturbation, and Venus in Fur, a Tony-award nominated off-Broadway play about sexual masochism and domination. In April, Singapore's first gay magazine debuted. And although homosexuality is still officially illegal, many Singaporean gay clubs are as popular and public as anything you'd find in Chelsea or the Castro. Last month, Vincent Wijeysingha risked prison when he became the first Singaporean politician to publicly come out as gay, and a record-high 21,000 people showed up for a June "Pink Dot" rally in support of same sex rights. Even the Singaporean government, concerned about the country's declining birth rates, endorsed a humorous video campaign last year that explicitly encouraged citizens to have sex on National Day, a government holiday.

Yen Yen Woo, a Singaporean filmmaker and professor at Long Island University, added that the government's prudishness has long been balanced with an occasional sexually progressive streak.

"On the outside, because of the competitiveness and efficiency of the business climate, people learned to perform a public self that is not particularly sexy," Woo said. "But on the other hand, we also have accepted, legalized prostitution."

But despite some social indicators of sexual progress, Tamara Loos, a professor of Southeast Asian history at Cornell University, cautioned that the Singaporean government's increasing openness to heterosexual expressions of sexuality doesn't indicate a broader acceptance of other sexual subcultures. Only months before that Pink Dot rally underlined the growing social support among Singaporeans for gay rights, for example, Singapore's High Court rejected a petition to decriminalize sex between two men.

"There is certain kind of openness when it comes to normative sexuality, because the government is really worried that Singaporean Chinese aren't reproducing at the same rate as Malays and other groups," said Loos. "So it makes total sense that they're promoting sex--but only if you're married, straight, and preferably Chinese."

"Even if the government isn't yet open to sexual progress, I think that on a social level most people understand that sexuality can't be forced or pre-determined. They realize that it's not a threat," she added. "But I think the government still sees non-normative sexualities as a threat."

In Singaporean classrooms, however, Shakespearean sexuality was less of a threat and more of an exciting foray into the literature. We covered the whole spectrum of sexual expression in Shakespeare's language: humor, allusion, and innuendo that were at times shocking, non-normative, kinky, or even crass. And the Singaporean teachers, students, and school administrators I worked with wholeheartedly embraced the Bard at his most bawdy.

We talked about how the "barren scepter" in Macbeth might suggest the main character's sterility or impotence, and about how Othello probably gets so enraged by the drunken brawl in Cyprus because it interrupts him in the middle of consummating his marriage. We talked about how some references suggest that "wit" was Elizabethan slang for "vagina," and about how that fact transforms some of Shakespeare's best-known passages. (Rosalind in As You Like It, ladies and gentlemen: "Nay, you might keep that check for it, till you met your wife's wit going to your neighbor's bed.")

"There are sexual comments everywhere in Shakespeare, and some of them are really shocking," I said. "If you think Shakespeare is dry and boring, look again." At that, I started to read aloud from Twelfth Night. There's a scene where Malvolio reads a letter from Olivia, the woman he loves. He carefully analyzes her handwriting, reading certain letters out loud, and spells out--well, he spells out a bad word. A really bad word.

With an encouraging nod from the teacher, I wrote the letter 'C' on the chalkboard and turned around to scan the crowd. At their desks, several students picked up pencils to copy what I was writing. Despite the endorsement of the school and teacher, I was nervous. I was about to share a well-recognized and accepted academic interpretation of a famous passage of Shakespearean literature, but this would push the envelope in any country.

"Go for it," the teacher had said. "We want these kids to love Shakespeare. We want to surprise them."

I continued to read the scene aloud and gingerly added a U next to the C. By the time I wrote the letter N, the students had, for the most part, abandoned their notebooks and were staring at the board.

"No way," I heard one young man mutter in the audience.

Then I wrote the last letter. After the expected moment of shock, the room exploded. As the teenagers laughed, gasped, and shouted at each other across the auditorium, their teacher handed a copy of Twelfth Night to a student in the front row. The other students clustered around him, leaning over his shoulder to look at the pages.

"That scene isn't the only fun part," I called into the crowd. "All of it is great. So read the whole thing, okay?"

"We will!" one of the students yelled, his eyes still fixed on the book. His teacher and I smirked and exchanged a glance. Mission accomplished.

It might take awhile for Singapore's government to catch up with its sex-positive citizenry, but one thing is certain: Singaporeans are anything but stodgy. I like to think Shakespeare would fit right in.