Let’s talk about sex, baby

We were in Standard 2. My friend Diane gathered some girls together in the playground for the big announcement.

“You must never touch a boy when you have your period,” she whispered fiercely.

“Why not?” we clamoured.

“Because you’€™ll fall pregnant,” she announced with a flourish.

I remember shrinking back in horror. Pregnant? “But what if you touch a boy accidentally. Like, he just brushes past you?”

Diane arched her eyebrows, widened her eyes and devastated us: “It doesn’€™t matter if it’€™s an accident or not. You’€™ll still fall pregnant.”

Luckily, there was one small voice of reason. Annie ventured nervously that her mother had told her that babies were made when the seed from a man was planted in the egg of a woman.

Those children fortunate enough to have parents they could talk to took this up with them when they got home. But most of us had to struggle through all kinds of conflicting information from friends and older siblings to make sense of this mysterious thing called sex.

Concern about teenagers’€™ lack of information about sex has led to the formation of Love Life, a programme headed by Zanele Mbeki that draws together non-governmental organisations, the Department of Health and the National Youth Commission.

Love Life wants to “positively influence adolescent sexual behaviour to reduce teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS.

Love Life research shows that “sex is the main form of recreation among adolescents”. This is not surprising, considering that almost 70% of South Africans under the age of 20 live in rural or semi-rural areas where entertainment opportunities are scarce and poverty is the norm.

About 45% of all South Africans are under the age of 20, according to census figures, which means that a lot of teenagers are having sex.

But, says Love Life, most young people don’€™t know much about the mechanics of sex or how their bodies work. They have “nobody to talk to about sexual health choices” and often feel alienated by judgmental staff at family planning clinics.

A young person who lacks clear information about sex is far more likely to fall pregnant, or contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDS, than one who is making informed choices.

“My parents never talk about sex. I imagined that they did not know anything and allowed my first boyfriend to be my teacher because he was experienced. This was not a good thing. I was too young,” said a teenager interviewed by Love Life.

Jenny Shain, a social worker with the Berea-based Parent and Child Counselling Centre, says parents should “start talking to their children about sex when they are young. From the age of seven or eight, they should introduce them to the basic facts and let them feel that it’€™s OK to talk about it”.

Love Life’€™s Nomonde Gongxeka says that parents need to be open with their children about sex to “help them to take control of their lives, rather than be easily influenced by others”.

She says openness will “protect children from being abused or abusing others, give children the confidence to say ‘€˜no’€™ or ‘€˜yes’€™ and help young people to choose loving, caring relationships and friendships”.

Most social organisations concerned with young people agree that parents should educate their children about sex. But they differ over the message.

Religious organisations generally believe that parents should encourage their children to abstain from sex, while organisations trying to prevent the spread of STDs tend to assume that teen sex is going to happen, and they concentrate on teaching safe sex.

Pat MacGregor, who has been teaching sex education on behalf of the Catholic Church for the past 13 years, says “parents are the first educators of their children and have a duty to talk to their children about sex”

But the Catholic Church believes that sex belongs in marriage, says MacGregor. “In society, sex is losing its meaning. It is used and abused by anyone and everyone. We challenge children to choose to wait until marriage before having sex.”

MacGregor says she has been encouraged by the response she has got from school children. “They say that I am the first one to tell them that they don’€™t have to have sex. Most people assume they are going to have it anyway, and concentrate on telling them about contraception.

“This may seem to be the easy way out. A girl might feel that she must have sex with a guy. Contraception might stop her from falling pregnant, but it doesn’€™t mean that the guy is not going to leave her afterwards. And those telling her to use contraception are not there to help her when he does.”

Shain says that abstinence might work if the teenager’€™s family’€™s lifestyle supports this. “Abstinence might be feasible in a very religious family where contact with the other sex is limited. But once the young person is going out, and attending mixed parties, I think it is unrealistic.”

Shain says many parents are “naïve”, preferring not to acknowledge that their children are sexually active, but that “girls are generally sexually active from around 13 or 14 and boys may start even younger”.

“Parents need to establish open communication about sex with their adolescent children,” says Shain. “If they are heavy and stern, their children will not talk to them and may hide what they are doing or become more rebellious.”

She adds that many parents “find themselves in a dilemma. If they help their children to get contraception, it looks as if they are condoning behaviour that they disagree with. But if they don’€™t, the child may have unprotected sex and fall pregnant or get a disease.”

Young people face many more pressures than their parents’€™ generation did. HIV/AIDS has no cure except prevention, so parents might actually save their children’€™s lives if they help them to act responsibly. ‘€“ Health-e News Service.

            How to start talking to your child:

  • Don’€™t panic: Your children will probably do some things that you don’€™t want them to do. Panic won’€™t stop them, but good information can help them to stay safe and make wise decisions.
  • Start young: The earlier you begin, the easier it is. By the time your children are teenagers, they will be prepared and less likely to make unwise choices.
  • Encourage talk: Be open to talking with your children about all kinds of things. Create an environment of trust and communication. Find ways to gently start talking about difficult things now.
  • Talk often: A once-in-a-lifetime sex talk will not give your children all the information they need. Repeat yourself and make sure you have been understood.
  • Be sensitive: Respect the age and stage that your child is at. Don’€™t give more information than they want or need.
  • Be supportive and positive: If you shout at your children or ignore their difficult questions, you will make communication very difficult.
  • Say what you believe: Don’€™t be shy to tell your children what you believe. They want and need some moral guidance from you.
  • Listen: When children come to you with a question, show respect and listen. Make sure you understand their questions.
  • Be honest: If you don’€™t know the answer, say so. If you don’€™t feel good talking about sex, say so. But try to say so in a way that doesn’€™t stop communication. Suggest someone else that your children could speak to to get answers. Try to learn with them.

[From: “Tips on talking to your children about difficult things” by Love Life, Tel (011) 327 7379.]                                          

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