By: Nomtika Mjwana
From the earliest time I can remember in my childhood, talking about anything that had to do with sex was censored and, in most instances, frowned upon. It was an unnecessary and a prohibited conversation for you unless you met the adult criteria. My genitalia came with pseudonyms like “intshontsho”, “cookie” and the most blackmailing one, the “FLOWER”. The vulva, including the vagina was referred to as the flower. I’d love to say that this is because of how the vulva looks, but the reality is that this was due to the fact that “purity” lived there. You do not mess around with the “flower” because it is a temple of your purity and dignity as a young person. Once you tamper with the flower, you are rejected, you will get pregnant and most likely infected with HIV. Those were the lens, and at the time HIV infection was also heavily stigmatised, between the big “AIDS KILLS” billboards, assumptions and associations of the virus to promiscuity and recklessness’ and families literally breaking down and crying when fellow family members disclosed a positive HIV status. All of this was all too overwhelming, and hard to cope with. So Life Orientation told us to stay away from parties and alcohol so we can save ourselves from all this. So for me, learning about ‘wet dreams’ and masturbation was through male experiences, most of which were men around me in different environments. I felt bad for having had sex dreams, let alone masturbating. I started masturbating before my sexual debut, and I’ve always felt so bad and ashamed, fearing that I might grow hair on my palms and people would know. I actually did not know what masturbation was for women until I started googling why I did what I did to myself.
That’s an example of the current state of sexuality education in South Africa. From home, church and community to healthcare facilities and our schools. Young people are not taught comprehensively about how their bodies work, about sexuality, reproduction and sexual health – especially sexual pleasure. Everything is limited to biology and reproduction, as if young people do not have sex for pleasure. Abstinence-only education is still being reinforced in curriculums, and even if the curriculum speaks something different, teachers and educators bring their own morality into their workspaces, and that compromises the kind of service an adolescent or young person receives, as well as the amount and extent of information they are exposed to.
The Critical Studies for Sexuality and Reproduction and Rhodes University developed a policy brief which summarises adolescent and youths experiences on the sexuality education curriculum in the Life Orientation subject. The five key themes that emerged were:
Disease, Danger and Damage: The message is that of disease, danger and damage (remember those “AIDS KILLS”
billboards?). There is no component of agency and freedom in one’s experiences, particularly sexual experiences. It reinforced rigid gender norms: boys must be strong and initiators and girls must be passive, submissive, gentler and never initiate sex. It reinforced Heteronormativity and
Homophobia: problematising people of other gender identities and sexual orientations outside of cisgender and heterosexual. it’s not relatable: young people’s actual experiences do not relate to what they are being taught i.e. they may learn about sex through the lens of preventing pregnancy and STls, but that’s not WHY young people have sex. They have sex for pleasure. Lastly, teachers are not well trained to deliver the content: so some of them also struggle and find it awkward to talk about sex themselves. Remember they also have a background and ideologies about these things.
In 2016, an outrage sparked from parents in various communities when a Life Orientation textbook was endorsing a culture of rape and victim-blaming. This shows that there is a long way to go when engaging young people on autonomy, gender, sex, sexuality and relationships thereof. The conversation of consent would not be contested to this extent if we start to engage kids at an early age about bodily autonomy and what they are entitled to. As soon as questions and relevance start rolling in on the subject of sex and everything in between, one must be prepared to engage and answer questions openly and honestly. Young people are exposed to the media.Porn is one of the most searched terms on the Internet and it is the easiest thing to access as well. Young people also have their own experiences they share amongst each other. This is a learning process for them and so it is important to make sure that when those conversations happen, whatever environment they are in is safe enough for them to do so, and that they are also well equipped to enjoy such conversations without perpetuating and reinforcing violent behaviours of any kind. For those of us who carry our own experiences on this matter and have recognised this, we have the responsibility to ensure that we advocate for comprehensive sexuality education, as well as services that
will respond to young people’s needs.
This article was published on the ACTIVATE! Uncensored Voices publication (check the publications page soon for an electronic copy of the book).