As every parent and child knows, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) conversations can be a bit awkward.

This is something that Michaela Pillay* knows all too well. The 21-year-old Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) student has never had a proper conversation about sex or menstruation with her mother.

“My mother has spoken to me about the basics of periods, and when I was younger, I would tell her whenever I needed pads. But we didn’t have a full-blown conversation about it,” she says.

Lack of in-depth conversations

Pillay says that her older sister Nadia is the one she mostly spoke to about sex. However, like with their mother, the sisters did not have an in-depth conversation.

“Nadia only told me about contraceptives when I was in matric. She explained what they were and why I should know about them now that I’m an adult. I was 18 at the time, and I knew what they were already because some girls at my school were already using them”, said Pillay.

“I wish conversations weren’t so awkward and secretive,” said Pillay. She said learning about SRH through friends and social media had pros and cons. 

Why talking about SRH is so crucial

Sex and pleasure educator Lisa Welsh and Director of Southern Africa Programmes at Ibis Reproductive Health, Tshegofatso’ Tshego’ Bessenaar, want people to know that talking about sex will empower young people to make informed decisions.

Health-e News spoke to Welsh and Bessenaar about why SRH conversations between parents and children are important. 

Why is sexual and reproductive health conversations taboo in some homes?

Welsh: “Many people find it difficult to discuss sexual and reproductive health at home for various reasons. Adults may have unresolved issues that make them feel ashamed to talk about sex, and these topics may have never been discussed in their own homes as children.

There may also be concerns about destroying the innocence of the children or even encouraging early sexual exploration by speaking about sex.”

Bessenaar: “There is a narrative that speaking about sexual reproductive health (SRH) means teaching about sex, especially when young people are involved. We continue to get backlash and social resistance to SRH programming, for example, the delivery of comprehensive sex education.

The taboo on sexuality constructed by cultural beliefs over the years continues to be a barrier and complicates communication about SRH.”

How does a lack of SRH information affect decisions young people make?

Welsh: “A lack of accurate and age-appropriate information can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Empowering young people with reliable, honest information about sex can significantly reduce the risk of sexual abuse.”

Bessenaar: “If young people don’t get to learn about their sexual and reproductive health, they miss the opportunity to have a frame of reference that helps them to be better prepared to prevent negative SRH outcomes.”

Is information on SRH more impactful if received at home?

Welsh: “When it comes to their bodies, sexual health, privacy, consent, and respect, parents are the most important educators for their children. Information can be shared gradually. While some schools offer sex education as part of their curriculum, this is often far from comprehensive.”

Bessenaar: “SRH information and education are more impactful when it comes from a variety of settings; this normalises SRH education. And that’s what we need – to remove the shaming often associated with the topic”. 

What are some barriers to sharing SRH information within a household?

Welsh: “Embarrassment, shame, anxiety, guilt, and fear can all be barriers to sharing sexual and reproductive health information within a household. Many of us have been socialised to believe that sex is inherently bad and wrong, and we want to keep children away from it for as long as possible.”

Bessenaar: “Individual moral positions regarding SRH information; these shape how they (parents) speak or not speak about it. When they speak about it, they either take the moralistic or disciplinarian stand and often preach abstinence”.

What are some misconceptions about parents sharing SRH info with their children?

Welsh: “A common misconception is that learning about sex will encourage young people to engage in sexual behaviour. However, research has shown that receiving accurate and age-appropriate sex information may delay experimentation.

Bessenaar: “In my work, for example, during our Mmoho sessions, young people share that their wish is to be able to speak openly to their parents/guardians about SRH. Mmoho is a national youth and adolescent SRH campaign that Ibis Reproductive health has been rolling out since 2013.

However, their parents’ misconception is that SRH conversations mean the child is naughty and wants to go around having sex. But actually, the child needs information and a safe space to counter the outside world and all pressures and noise that could influence negative SRH outcomes. They just need someone to listen and not shame and blame them”. 

Final words for parents

Welsh: “The approach to discussing sex with young children is the same for both genders. A good starting point is to find out what your child already knows by asking a question like ‘where do you think babies come from?’. From here, you can address any misconceptions or gaps in their knowledge that they may have picked up. Respond factually and truthfully in an age-appropriate manner, and don’t be afraid to express your thoughts and feelings.”

Welsh continues: “Knowing the correct names for genitals, for example, will help your child communicate with doctors.”

Bessenaar: “Be non-judgemental and don’t take the moralistic stand. In the end, children want to feel cared for and listened to. This will create a safe space for them to open up, and the more children open up, the better parents are positioned to advise in a way that would prevent negative SRH outcomes. I always say, as a parent, you were once a child. How would you have loved to be spoken to about SRH? So make your children know they are not alone because you too have been there”. – Health-e News