Honest answers to classroom questions

It can be uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality because it’€™s such a private thing, acknowledges psychologist and guidance councillor, Ingrid Owens, but she has no doubt that children want to talk

It can be uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality because it’€™s such a private thing, acknowledges psychologist and guidance counsellor, Ingrid Owens, but she has no doubt that children want to talk.

Whether she’€™s working with students in an affluent private college or a township school, Owens says in her experience, children want to know and understand about their bodies, feelings and relationships.

“Knowledge does empower teenagers, although there is research that shows that simply giving people knowledge doesn’€™t change behaviour,” she says.

“You can’€™t just rely on education alone, there are many factors in an individual’€™s life and the context in which they live that affects their behaviour. But there’€™s no doubt that it’€™s important to talk to teenagers about sex and sexuality!”

Owens says her school students are full of questions ‘€“ some stem from sheer ignorance, others come from information they’€™ve found on the Internet or things they’€™ve heard about.

“Something I do with all my classes is to give them a chance to write down questions anonymously. It gives them a chance to raise things that might be hard for them to ask and an opportunity to get some correct information.”

Owens says the most common misapprehensions about sex concern basic biology, as well as various old myths that persist, such as that girls can avoid getting pregnant by jumping up and down after sex, or bathing in vinegar.

“I think students only learn about human biology in Grade 11 (when students are 16 or 17 years old) and girls are menstruating when they are 11 or 12, so there’€™s a big gap. There’€™s also a gap around basic biology, most boys don’€™t know what girls look like inside and vice versa, unless they’€™ve gone to look for the information somewhere.

There is also a deafening silence around homosexuality.

“I think this is an area of more prejudice than anything else, more than sexism. Sexism feels like it’€™s being challenged in other areas and other subjects, but homosexuality is generally spoken about very little, but the prejudice comes up through names being called out in class.

“I think it’€™s hard for any of the students who are battling with it for themselves. I haven’€™t had any students who’€™ve spoken to me about it, whereas they’€™ve spoken to me about many other things.”

Owens says it is important is to link sex and sexuality with lifeskills, such as self-esteem and assertiveness.

“Where things are taught in compartments, it becomes difficult for the students to transmit the skills. They need to be able to make the links between HIV and about being assertive and saying no and so on.”

In her experience, Owens says most parents are not speaking to their children about sex. She believes it is crucial for parents to start talking to their children from a young age, otherwise it can be very awkward for parents to suddenly want to discuss sex when their child is 15 years old.

Owens is concerned that many parents’€™ fears about how to talk to their children about sex results in them not talking at all. This exposes their children to far greater dangers.

“HIV/AIDS is obviously the big concern, but the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy all become greater risks if children do not have the knowledge, self-esteem and assertiveness to deal with the world around them.

“Children are bombarded about the dangers of sexuality. It becomes a minefield. There is something about a healthy and positive sexuality that is in danger of being lost if we don’€™t talk about sex and equip teenagers with the necessary knowledge.”


  • Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

    Bibi-Aisha is an award-winning journalist whose career spans working in radio, television, and development. Previously, she worked for eNCA as a specialist science reporter, and the SABC as the Middle East foreign correspondent, and SAfm current affairs anchor. Her work has appeared on Al-Jazeera, The British Medical Journal, The Guardian, IPS, Nature, SciDev.net and Daily News Egypt. She’s been awarded reporting fellowships from the Africa-China Reporting Project, Reuters Foundation, National Press Foundation, International Women’s Media Foundation. Pfizer/SADAG, and the World Federation of Science Journalists. She’s currently an Atlantic Tekano Fellow For Health Equity 2021.

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