20/03/2017 02:40 GMT | Updated 20/03/2017 04:58 GMT

SA Needs To Talk More About Sex In Healthy And Loving Relationships

Talking about pregnancy and HIV isn't enough.

South Africa is a deeply conservative country when it comes to sex. Most young South Africans never have frank discussions about sex with their parents. (In a 2012 survey of 17,000 teenagers in South Africa, 60 percent of kids said they would never ask their parents about sex.)

In fact, it's not uncommon for young people to try to maintain the pretence that they are not even dating, and to only bring a romantic partner home to meet their families months or even years down the line. At the same time, we are also a country with high rates of sexual violence and of intimate partner violence, both of which overwhelmingly affect women. In 2015/2016, an average of 142 sexual offences were reported to police per day. South Africa also has one of the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the world. When it comes to developing ideas about healthy relationships and healthy sex, families, communities and schools are clearly failing young people in general and women in particular.

It can be hard to believe, given the strong emphasis placed on learning about HIV in schools. But researchers have found that this focus on HIV-prevention has failed to promote healthy sexual behaviours overall.

The curricula seem to be having a positive effect on students' knowledge and awareness of HIV and AIDS, but they do not adequately meet the goals of the national policy – namely, to promote healthy behaviour and positive attitudes. Lerissa Thaver and Astrid Leao

The experience of many South African children is a constant barrage of information on how not to contract an STD and how not to get pregnant. The directive from teachers is often that abstinence is the only real choice.

Writing about the disconnect between South Africa's "penitent Victorian approach to sex" and the "over sexualisation of women's bodies behind every screen", Mail & Guardian arts and culture editor Milisuthando Bongela writes that "somewhere in the middle, life orientation teachers and 'cool' aunts are supposed to fill in the blanks".

In effect, the education of young people on what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship is being left to chance.

When HuffPost SA asked women what they'd wished they'd known earlier about sex, we were astounded by some of what we heard. No one should have to learn that "there's nothing to grin and bear about sex" or that they're "not obligated to have sex just because the other person wants it" through trial and error.

If I think back to it, my own sex education came down to a few booklets on puberty handed out in primary school, a talk from a school nurse about menstruation, and a single session with a biology teacher in matric about preventing pregnancy and STDs. (By that stage one of our classmates had already dropped out after falling pregnant.) There was no mention of any type of contraception other than condoms and the concept of consent was never raised. There were never any discussions on relationships and dating, sexuality and love.

Natasha Erlank, professor of historical studies at the University of Johannesburg, says academic writing about sexuality in South Africa tends to examine it only in relation to HIV/Aids. "The sad thing is that most children at school are still not exposed to very much that is useful in terms of sex education," she said in an email.

This is deeply unfortunate. Studies have shown that sexual coercion - being forced to engage in sexual behaviour against one's will through violence, threats, verbal insistence, deception, cultural expectations or economic circumstances -- is common in South Africa. And young women in particular are disproportionately represented in the number of new HIV infections.

But there is another way. Consider the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world - an indication that young people are having less unprotected sex. For the Dutch, "comprehensive sexuality education" starts at age 4.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a rights-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, whether in school or out of school. It is taught over several years, providing age-appropriate information consistent with the evolving capacities of young people. UNFPA

At that early stage, the focus is on body awareness. They draw boys bodies and girls bodies, talk about the people they love - parents, siblings or friends - and how they express that love, perhaps through kindness and hugs. Each year these conversations become more complex, so that by the time they're teenagers they can have serious conversations about sexual and reproductive health. By the end of primary school, kids start asking more introspective questions - not so much about the mechanics of sex but about love and how to pursue relationships.

The Dutch are clearly onto something. According to date from the World Bank, in 2015 there are four births for every 10,000 women aged 15 to 19. In South Africa that year, there were 44.

South Africa too is meant to be rolling out comprehensive sexuality education and in recent years education policy-makers have begun speaking about introducing sex ed as early as grade R. But the reality in classrooms is bleak.

A policy brief written for government by Catriona Macleod and Jonathan Glover laid out some of the problems with sex ed as it's taught here. After reviewing research on sexuality education in South Africa, they found that schools often

  • focus on themes of "danger, damage and disease";
  • reinforce rigid gender categories and prescribed roles for men and women;
  • leave learners feeling a disconnect between what they're taught in class and what they experience in their lives;
  • avoid discussions about sexual and gender diversity; and
  • rely on poorly-trained teachers whose personal values may contradict national policy and curriculum.

They recommended that sex ed programmes be designed "to incorporate the positive and pleasurable aspects of sexualities in all their complexities, using young people's preferred cultural expressions of sexuality".

Macleod, a professor of psychology at Rhodes University who has written extensively on sexual and reproductive health, believes we need to "thoroughly rethink" sexuality education in South Africa.

Sex education taught at school has a profound effect on how young people think about sex and sexuality, and about their relationships with other people and how they conceptualise themselves, says Sarah Emily Duff, a researcher on childhood and sexuality based at the Wits Institute for Socio-Economic Research.

"In 2017, we should focus on teaching both girls and boys -- not only girls -- about the importance of consent in relationships: that no one has any right to any other person's body, time, or attention," she said.

Duff said it's also important to emphasis that regardless of religious interpretations, South African society is accepting and supportive of a range of sexual identities and practices. "No one has any right to police or pass judgement on people whose sexual identities are different to theirs."

Given the persistent homophobic violence in our country -- including the victimisation, assault and murder of members of the LGBTI community - this aspect of sexuality education cannot be omitted.

If policy-makers, educators and families could see beyond danger, damage and disease to what positive sexual relationships might look like, what kind of society could we build for young people in South Africa?

HIV, unplanned pregnancies and rape are frequent concerns in South Africa. What we don't do enough of is talk about safe, healthy, consensual sex. This March, HuffPost SA looks at women and sex - what we want to know, what we wish we'd known earlier, and what those who come after us won't have to wonder about after all. You can find all the articles and blogs here or try some of these:

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