Early sexual debut can and should be delayed

An upcoming monograph, “A magnifying glass and a fine-toothed comb: Understanding girls and young women’s sexual vulnerability” by Associate Professor in Psychology, Mzi Nduna, addressing the inequalities behind some assumptions that seemingly support the vulnerabilities of adolescent girls and young women has inspired the next five blogs that I will be posting in the coming weeks. For a little context, she lays out these assumptions as areas that need to be considered when designing and delivering Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) interventions for young women and girls, and highlights the need to focus on their realities as they manoeuvre around these assumptions.

At first glance the assumptions come across as being ideally the better ways to protect women and girls from unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection, this according to what is referred to as the sequential model. This model basically says that, and I’ll paraphrase here, girls should focus on being successful at school, get a job and then get married, have children and enjoy life. This definitely resonates right! Because this has always been the ideal – I know it’s what I’ve wanted for myself and I know some friends too who aspired for this order.

So the first assumption says, “Early sexual debut can and should be delayed – the choice to attend school is accessible to children, adolescents and young women; this choice delays sexual debut, and is thus protective against pregnancy and HIV”.

I don’t know that any intervention that focuses on women and girls delaying their first sexual encounter through schooling is necessarily a winning one, when there are so many factors that inform the decision to have sex for the first time. And in agreement with the author of the book, what of a sexual debut that one had no say in?

For a start, there are unfortunate children that are born into families that don’t even see the point of an education, possibly as a result of their own upbringing. Others are born into financially destitute families that would rather their children learned how to farm and care for livestock, if they even have that much. The issue with basing an intervention on this assumption is that school is definitely not accessible to all children, adolescents and young women due to the rural/urban divide and the stark inequality in our society.

Attending school, by the same token, has an insufficient bearing on when one decides to start having sex. If anything, the social environment at school is what motivates a lot of girls and young women to have sex at an early age. That’s mostly where we learn about boys – at my primary school there were often kissing scenes arranged and all the “in” squad would know about it and go off to watch this unfold in awe; innocent enough I suppose. At my all girls’ High school we would huddle up in groups listening to love stories from the experienced girls – Oyama sitting there nodding away in wonder, “if High school boys are so immature what will become of me? Should I skip the high school boys when I haven’t even had the chance to experience this immaturity? Also this can’t be the same immaturity I know – you know, boy pulls at your hair and teases you in front of his friends?” I couldn’t even tell what was true or not, and being all the wiser now, I know they would often inflate and exaggerate things to seem cool. I know quite a few girls that fell pregnant at high school too and not just at my school, so I suppose Life Orientation didn’t do much to deter them.

If anything, I would say that parents have the greater influence than school in a young girl’s sexual debut, in terms of effects such as rules at home regarding dating and monitoring time spent with friends, and general conversations around the incidents aforementioned.

From my privileged perspective – and I say that mindfully because as much as I face many of the same oppressions that other women do regardless of social or economic status, I know I have privileges – I feel like today young girls with the same advantages that I had, have a better chance at sequencing, but the question is do they even want to and if they want to, are there no interruptions guaranteed? I fully support abstinence but I am not unrealistic about the nature of choice. We can speak of girls and young women being the gatekeepers of sex but it is unfair not to account for the environmental and structural factors that influence that decision such as factors as out of their control as rape, sex trafficking, child marriages and incest, among others.  In accordance with sequencing, after marriage the expectation is to have children – what of young women that want to have sex for the pleasure and intimacy but not to have children? What of those that don’t even want to get married? Choice can be very complex because there is a fine line between the liberties and freedoms that come with say, feminism versus age-old traditions. My point is that there should be a marriage of these values; these traditions should not be enforced as some rule that communicates an infringement, but rather there should be guidance from parent to child such that a child is not running around tossing freedoms that may be detrimental to their well-being. I don’t think the focus should be on delaying the sexual debut but ensuring that it is guided because it will happen nonetheless; and it will happen notwithstanding school attendance.

Focus should not only be on young girls and women, boys and young men should be simultaneously targeted too in these behavioural interventions to ensure that the ideal of a delayed sexual debut, because it is essentially beneficial, is harmonious as sex shouldn’t be one sided and decisions around sex should not fall entirely with the girl. We know that the responsibility of consequences such as pregnancy will always fall on the girl for as long as a boy can basically turn and run, with the girl harshly criticised for ever considering or eventually “dumping” a baby that she didn’t make alone, and so emphasis on the boy’s role is imperative. Young boys are no more incapable of taking care of and raising a baby as girls are, and protecting them from HIV is just as important if girls are to be just as safe. As much as there is focus on women breaking the sphere of patriarchy to make way for equality, men need to be required to do the same so that they are able to understand the role that they too are required to play in raising healthy and balanced children.

There needs to be focus on changing social norms between men, women and gender non-conforming individuals, and as much as there needs to be an accommodation for the differences between them all, equality needs to be at the center of all spheres – in education, employment, tradition/culture and religion.

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