Photo: Siphumeze Khundayi. All rights reserved.I’m not ashamed to say I know a thing or two about sex. Some of the things I know are polite and some less so. These things I have learned from many sources: porn, past partners, reading pamphlets or articles and friends. None I have learned from my parents or other adults in my life.
This may be unsurprising. Who wants to learn about the reverse cowgirl from their dad, or how to stretch before a marathon session from their aunt?
The sex advice parents give is often very basic, covering biology and little else. Sometimes AIDS is mentioned, along with risks of pregnancy and the sexy possibility Jesus might be peephole-spying at you should you be having some company outside of marriage. My parents have made me worry that our Lord and Saviour is literally standing outside the window when I have sex, judging my exposed rear end.
Despite having this direct experience of limited, unhelpful conversation, they all swore that they could not talk to their own kids about sex, and this included those with tween and teenage children.
A fear-mongering style of sex education within homes can lead to very problematic ideas about sex. This is despite the fact that across Africa there is a history of teaching safe, healthy and pleasurable sexual practices at a community-level.
It’s only recently that sex advice has been relegated to porn or random movies. Some of my own, earlier ‘this is so good’ noises mirrored the women I had seen in some of the more risqué media I watched – until I woke up and realised that was not what my pleasure sounded like.
Photo: Siphumeze Khundayi. All rights reserved.Sticking to speaking about sex just before or after people get married is not a good strategy. It leaves young people at risk for much of their lives, exposed to some bad or even dangerous experiences because frankly, they just don’t know any better.
We can't continue to pretend that young people are not having sex, or that teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) are not serious issues.
In Africa more than 23 million people are HIV positive. Rates of curable STIs are rising faster on the continent than anywhere else. In Ghana almost 5 million people are believed to be living with an STI; in Rwanda it’s almost 2 million; in Zambia we are talking about 2.6 million people.
These rates are rising despite health risks being one of the few sex topics that some parents actually do talk to their children about. Meanwhile, schools may offer little better in the way of sex education and sadly some young people have had devastating sexual experiences at school with teachers being the predators their parents never told them about.
Back in 2001, Human Rights Watch warned that in South Africa, rape, sexual harassment and abuse were seen as “an inevitable part of the school environment.”
In Mozambique, school girls have spoken out about teachers who ask them for sex in exchange for grades. "They [the teachers] give the girls their phone number and ask them to call them,” one girl told anthropologist Johanna Higgs. “They just want to have sex with the girls and leave them."
Higgs said a teacher told her that, in one school: “The male teachers would work together...if one female student wouldn't sleep with a teacher the other male teachers would gang up on her and all give her bad grades.”
“The male teachers would work together...if one female student wouldn't sleep with a teacher the other male teachers would gang up on her and all give her bad grades.”
Negative experiences in childhood can plant bad ideas about what sex is, that may continue into adolescence and adult relationships. Safe sex, bodily autonomy and physical agency need to be learned well before we ‘believe’ children should have sex. It’s easier to learn positive attitudes than unlearn negative ones.
The silence surrounding sex when we are young makes for some tense, awkward and even dangerous situations later on. We need to start having open and frank conversations, earlier and more often – no matter how much talking about cunnilingus with your parents may feel like some form of medieval torture.