Take a moment to think about the people in your life and the types of relationships you have. The platonic relationship with your friend, the sexual relationship with your partner, and the working relationship with your colleague. Relationships come in all shapes and sizes. They can be positive or negative, difficult or easy, and involve sex or not – but all of them have a powerful impact on us.

Many of us are taught very different things about sex at home, at school, through the media and other venues. Still, for many people, that sex education focuses on the moral aspects of sex or the repercussions of unprotected sex like unwanted pregnancies, STIs or HIV. What far too many of us aren’t taught about are relationships and sex.

Sex and relationships

Too few of us are taught that any relationship with another person should leave you feeling good about yourself; that you can and should walk away if a situation makes you uncomfortable; and that relationships should complement your life, not be a complication.

If you’re taught about healthy relationships, and you learn to speak more openly about them – what they should look like and how they should make you feel – then you can start to understand your options better, so you can decide what’s right for you. When you are judged or harmed for no justifiable reason or made to feel unworthy, you don’t have to stay and conform – it’s okay to walk away.

These honest conversations are important at an early age as they teach the youth about self-worth and how to surround themselves with people who appreciate and support them. In turn, this self-worth can give youth the power to decide what makes them comfortable and to avoid what is unhealthy. This applies to platonic and sexual relationships.

Let’s speak more openly about sex in the context of relationships and include it in everyday conversations. We give the youth the vocabulary to better understand it, to know what possible health risks their choices could have, and then to explore options to prevent these risks.

Safety in information

Whatever lifestyle they choose – we should empower them with information and services that can keep them emotionally and physically healthy. This is only possible with open and honest conversations, but how do you have a conversation about sex – with a professional – without being intimidated by the large words and formal terms they use? Not only does it confuse you, but if you’re embarrassed because you don’t understand, you’re also less likely to ask anything further.

The language around HIV and GBV prevention – like pre-exposure prophylaxis (the HIV prevention pill) or intimate partner violence – can be technical and hard to understand for the youth. If they don’t understand something, they won’t listen, they won’t participate in the discussion, and they ultimately won’t know how to protect themselves.

And we need the youth, particularly girls and young women between the ages of 15–24, to understand the risks of sex and unhealthy relationships and how to protect themselves. This vulnerable age group is disproportionately affected by HIV and gender-based violence. According to UNAIDS, in sub-Saharan Africa, six in seven new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15–19 years are among girls. In addition, girls and young women aged 15–24 years are twice as likely to live with HIV than young men in the same age group. The most recent data from Statistics South Africa also shows that 90 037 girls aged 10–19 years gave birth in the country between March 2021 and April 2022.

Real relationship talk with youth

If we want this vulnerable group to listen, we need to understand their wants and desires and then speak with them – not at them. They want the relationships they hear in songs and see in movies, but we need to speak to them about relationships, show them that they have options and that they should choose relationships that leave them feeling good and don’t put them at risk. We must encourage them to trust their gut feelings and stay true to who they are so they don’t compromise their values.

By having these conversations about healthy relationships and humanising medical and scientific language, we’re providing the youth with information on their terms, where they can relate to it, are empowered to make the right choices for themselves, and are on a course to realise their full potential.

With World AIDS Day and 16 Days of Activism in the spotlight this month, it’s an opportunity to address the inequalities holding back progress in ending AIDS. While it’s hard to pinpoint if the problem in South Africa lies in access to information or acceptance of this information, equality starts with equal access to basic HIV services and access to information delivered in a way that everyone can understand and relate to.

When you start normalising the discussion about relationships and sexual health, you ensure that everyone is part of the conversation. You increase the likelihood that the youth – particularly vulnerable to HIV – will understand how to remain healthy. – Health-e News