What does age-appropriate sex education look like?

Courtesy Dainis Graveris via Unsplash

I can imagine many of us were shocked by the reports of an alarming number of young girls giving birth in the past year. Naturally, this prompted a debate regarding the use of contraceptives by young girls, and while this sounds like a feasible solution to some, it’s really just a Band-Aid to a much larger underlying problem.

Sadly, the rate of teenage pregnancy is something our government has struggled to get under control for years. In response, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, recently gazetted the policy on the prevention and management of learner pregnancy in schools in an effort to curb the rise in unintended pregnancies amongst adolescents- but we'll get back to this in just a sec.

The lack of proper sex-ed for all genders and sexualities accounts for most of these young girls falling pregnant. This excludes those who’ve fallen prey to sexual predators. It’s tough because at that young age we want to shelter them from such but if they’re choosing to engage in sexual activities then perhaps we should be having the contraceptive conversation.

I recently read a paper by Aventin et al (2021) that spoke about Adolescent condom use in Southern Africa: narrative systematic review and conceptual model of multilevel barriers and facilitators. What was brilliant about it was that they collated research that had been previously published to identify what may or may not be influencing the use of condoms by adolescents.

Sadly, there were various barriers to condom use identified than there were facilitators. Some of these barriers we are already aware of, including boys and young men asserting that the use of a condom during sex is less pleasurable; but some of these barriers are overt and could be part of the reason why sexual health initiatives fail in our county.

One of the barriers explored in this paper is how males oftentimes take the lead in making decisions when it comes to sex. What this means to me is that we are somehow failing in making young girls understand that it’s their right to make decisions when it comes to their bodies, their health and that this forms a huge part of consent. And that anything that is not consensual is not sex. We need to start calling it for what it is. I think another thing we need is to allow girls to be comfortable with exploring their sexuality.

It’s of my opinion that once adolescents, not only girls, are aware of their sexuality and want to start exploring it, we as a society need to provide an environment that is conducive for them to do so safely. And I suppose some effort has been made towards this through, for example, the provision of free condoms but as Aventin discusses, these measures often fail because young individuals wouldn’t want to take a pack of free condoms at a clinic lest they be judged by those at the clinic. And this makes total sense to me; if I were that age I wouldn’t want to get condoms from a public space where everyone can see me. Especially since our society frowns upon teenage sex. They did; however, suggest a solution for this through an example of a clinic in Botswana where a box of condoms where kept at a window out of sight from anyone and where individuals may get condoms without having to interact with anyone and potentially get judged.

The reason why I think this may be a feasible solution is that I remember how much more accessible condoms were to students during my time at UP and how many more people were using them because of it. You see, there were condom dispensers in bathrooms across campus and student residences and the cleaning staff were always refilling them if that’s anything to go by. But this example is anecdotal- there are actual peer-reviewed studies that support this. I’m just saying that perhaps including condom dispensers in school bathrooms might not be a bad idea.

But as much access to condoms as we may provide it still cannot replace accurate sex education, and sadly a huge barrier to proper sex-ed happens to be parents (incl. caregivers or guardians) who do not want to engage in discussions about sex and sexuality with their kids or even teachers who focus on sex solely as a means of reproduction and refuse to engage in conversations outside that narrative.

I mean this was made clear by just how many people were against the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) curriculum developed by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education. Okay, I understand that some parents don’t want their children learning about sex from school but the reality is that most parents don’t provide adequate sex education. Most (emphasis on most- not all) parents don’t go over the differences between sex and sexuality, or what to do/where to go if you find yourself with an STI (this seems pretty obvious but not when you’re just a kid) or even what consent means and what it looks like.

At least with proper sex education being offered in school, we know that everyone is being provided with the knowledge to make the right choices for themselves once they decide to be sexually active. Because that’s what it really is, making sure people are equipped with knowledge. Your children learning about sex is not going to make them want to have sex. They’re going to want to have sex when they are ready to have sex; this just makes sure that they are informed whenever the time comes. If you don’t believe me, you can check out the CSE curriculum here.

The current curriculum is a good start but I find it’s not “comprehensive” enough for me. It doesn’t address some of the critical points that I would want to learn about if I was still in school and I suppose it’s because these points are bones of contention but that doesn’t mean we must shy away from them. For example, we live in a country where abortions are legal and yet the CSE curriculum doesn’t provide information on how to go about accessing safe and legal abortions and counselling thereafter (FYI Bhekisisa created the very useful #SizaMap which helps you find providers of safe and legal abortions near you and can be accessed here). It doesn’t provide information on what sexual pleasure is or even how safe queer sex looks like.

Avoiding these topics of discussion can be detrimental to young individuals, especially to those who form part of the LGBTQ community. With the sex-ed presented at schools being predominantly heterocentric, focusing more on sex for reproduction than recreation; it ultimately fails to address questions that do not form part of that narrative. And this has dire consequences as explained by Epps et al (2021) who showed

“Evidence… further highlights the consequences of non-inclusive sex education for LGBTQ young people, who are left ill-equipped to navigate their sexual health and relationships safely, resulting in mental health problems, abusive relationships, and potentially suicide.”

They expand on this by explaining how schools which only promote abstinence or those which do not allow for discussions or openly engage with students of all genders and sexualities often result in students not feeling at liberty to ask pertinent questions in fear of stigmatization which may also lead to feelings of guilt and shame amongst those students.

It also has led to increased rates of STI/STD infections amongst LGBTQ students as a result of not being taught about safe sex that applies to them. The sexual health of these students is being compromised due to a lack of sexual health literacy.

An example of this may be seen through an example Epps presents of a study that showed how bisexual or lesbian girls are at a higher risk for contracting STD’s due to not being equipped with information on how to protect themselves against STDs. I mean, this is so insane to me. This is something which can be prevented if we just present this kind of information in schools. I don’t understand how we expect kids to blindly navigate their way through their respective sexualities and not encounter such problems. I’m not going to even go into the emotional distress it causes, because wow!

After going through the policy gazetted by the Minister we can be hopeful that as a country we're moving towards getting to a point where our sex education curriculum will equip future generations with resources that will help them practice safe sex regardless of gender or sexual orientation. And that young girls will be supported should they fall pregnant. I think a big win for us all, is that schools will now be required to report pregnancies of learners below the age of 16 to the SAPS and that criminal proceedings will be made against their male partners above the age of 16.

In theory, the policy is great but without seeing exactly how the policy is to be implemented I'm concerned that we will still find ourselves in the same position we currently find ourselves in. How will we ensure that educators are creating an environment in schools that will allow learners to address all of their sex-related questions freely without fear of judgement? How do we ensure, from a public health perspective, that we are providing sufficient information to promote sexual health and reduce the spread of STIs, reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, provide resources to girls on the various options available to them and support them with whatever decision they decide to take? And how do we deliver this information in a manner that is relevant and relatable to all?

So really, we need to be asking ourselves what does age-appropriate sex education look like and how do we begin to effectively deliver it?

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