Anouk Ride reports on the mixed messages that teenages are being given
about sex and argues that young people have rights too.
Sexuality is part of normal teenage development, not a monster to be locked away and starved. Young people need a chance to grow into their bodies, understand their reproductive systems and be responsible in their sexual relations. Sex is about relationships, personal discovery – and fun.
Methods for contraception and prevention against STDs should be explained and discussed fully and in terms kids can understand by people they can relate to. Knowledge is not enough – they need support not judgement.
Sex-education programs and services are not just for girls. Young men want to know sexual techniques, what to do to avoid pregnancy and information about STDs.
Young people are entitled to contraception which is safe, legal, affordable and available. They have a right to be protected from disease.
Education of young people will only work if adults too learn about sex and young people’s rights.
Parents should not overrule youth rights.
Abuse of young people must be condemned.
Privacy and confidentiality of services is essential.
Respect. If older people respect teenagers, the feeling will be mutual.
You can’t feel me up when I’m ten, then come back when I’m nineteen and tell me not to have sex with my boyfriend,’ Maria shouts loudly down the phone over the street noise of Baguio City, the Philippines.1 She is not alone in decrying the contradictory and condescending views that adults hold about young people and sex.
According to global surveys young people everywhere feel they are ruled by adults who tell them how to behave – but then refuse to give them control over their own bodies and their own sexuality.2 Nor do they protect them from exploitation. While the media, religious leaders and governments decry the fact that kids are having sex and ‘family values’ are breaking down, they have failed to protect young people from the dangers of unwanted and unsafe sexual relations.
This is universal. In the Majority World early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation and prostitution deny young men and women their own sexuality. In Africa, two million girls between seven and twelve are genitally mutilated and worldwide two million girls are introduced to the sex market each year.3
In Western countries kids are sent mixed messages by the media. They’re told that early sexual initiation is bad, but are bombarded with images of teenagers as sexual toys. Who is cool in the fashion world? Models that are young and childlike. Fashion designer Calvin Klein recently popularized this image with ads depicting young women (such as British super-model Kate Moss) in provocative poses. Critics said this was an example of 1990s fashion excess – but Klein and most designers have used half-dressed, pouting teenagers to sell their clothes for years. Society sexualizes children – and then tells them sex is bad.
In many Western countries sexual abuse of children is rife. In the US victims below the age of ten account for 29 per cent of rape cases and 62 per cent of cases involve victims fifteen years old or less. And these are reported cases only.4 The overwhelming majority of abuse is by someone known to the victim. Often the very adults who are in positions of trust with young people – relatives, neighbours, parents – are those who destroy their self-esteem and disturb their sexual development.
Adults think young people need to be controlled. And society generally has the same view towards the poor, the uneducated and ‘minorities’ such as ethnic groups and homosexuals. So young people from these backgrounds have even more societal pressures on their sexual behaviour. In the West the highest rates of teenage pregnancy are found among girls living in poverty with low education levels or job prospects. In Britain, in a poor district of East London, one in ten teenage girls gets pregnant while in the wealthier boroughs of Kingston and Richmond the rate is less than half that.5 One in every ten births worldwide is to a teenage mother. Sometimes getting pregnant is the only way a teenager can boost her self-esteem and add a sense of purpose to her life.
Society perpetuates the powerlessness of girls through poverty, class or caste and lack of education. Hari from Nepal describes a girl from her village: ‘Mona was pregnant with her seventh child, having married a 17-year-old boy at the age of 14. Being of a low caste, with no education, she didn’t have any control over her own life. If she had been given the opportunity of education to make her own money and an awareness of her body, she would not have become the slave of tradition and society.’5
Many girls marry for money or protection: ‘I got married because of a super-painful childhood, because my father was always hitting me,’ said one Chilean girl.1 Early marriage means that girls have little power within the relationship so cannot control if and when they have children.
And having babies before their bodies are fully formed puts them at risk of a range of life-threatening illnesses – the most common cause of death in teenage girls around the world.3 Fistulae (a rupture between the bladder, rectum and vagina often caused by giving birth too young) is one horrific example. Girls are left infertile and incontinent and become social outcasts. Inadequate access to safe contraceptives means that in places like São Paulo, Brazil, the number of young girls admitted to hospitals due to complications from unsafe abortions is greater than the number of births.
Even societies classified as democratic and liberal are far from accepting young people’s sexuality, particularly when it is seen as not ‘normal’. In Australia, where one of the best-selling, locally produced movies was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and where Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is the nation’s biggest street party, research indicates that around a third of young lesbians and gays have attempted suicide. The main cause of their depression was a common feeling that they lacked adult support.6
This is not surprising when some ‘experts’ are clearly living on another planet. One academic seriously proposed forced permanent contraception for ten- to seventeen-year-old girls worldwide. Meanwhile, Phyllis Schafly, an anti-feminist campaigner in the US, says: ‘It’s very healthy for a young girl to be deterred from promiscuity by fear of contracting a painful, incurable disease or cervical cancer or sterility or the likelihood of giving birth to a dead, blind or brain-damaged baby.’7
ERIC MILLER /
People often believe that if young people are taught about sex this will promote immorality and recklessness. But sexual- abstinence programs, popular in the US, have never been effective in delaying the onset of intercourse. Research indicates that increased information about sex encourages a later start to sexual relations, higher use of contraceptives and fewer sexual partners.2
Kids are having sex despite adult disapproval. ‘Heavy-handedness, brainwashing and moralizing will not stop the young from engaging in sexual activity,’ says Elmira from Kazakhstan.2 In fact, improvements in nutrition have led to girls worldwide becoming fertile more than two years earlier than previous generations. So most young people have a longer period of sexual relations before marriage than their parents. In sub-Saharan Africa eight out of ten people below the age of twenty are sexually experienced as are seven out of ten teenagers in many developed countries and at least half of all teens in Latin America.
Although they are sexually active, young people are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of sex. Without access to information, contraception and equal rights they have high rates of sexually transmitted diseases (stds) and unwanted pregnancies. Half of all new hiv infections are among the 15 to 24 age group – predominantly in South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. And one out of every twenty adolescents contracts an std each year.
Almost all young people say that they need more information on all aspects of their sexual and reproductive health. More than three-quarters in a global youth survey were aware of the risks of stds including hiv/aids. But a significant number of young people, particularly in Arab states and some parts of the Far East, believed stds and aids were not a personal concern.
‘STDs are only a problem for homosexuals, sex workers and drug addicts – it is scientifically proven,’ said a young respondent reciting common knowledge in Yemen.2 In India a study found most young people encountered sex earlier than in previous decades, but still thirty-six per cent of those interviewed had no idea what led to conception and only five per cent of them were using contraceptives.8 Up to 60 per cent of adolescent births throughout the world are unplanned.
Many youth workers say that teenagers, due to the lack of sex education and an inability to talk with parents, rely on the media and friends for advice. Most young people feel awkward talking to their elders about sex. In a recent survey of youth in 54 countries more than half said they felt too embarrassed to discuss sex with adults.2 ‘Adults have got this ideology that young people are being rude if they express their thoughts, so sometimes I just feel like a stray, an alien,’ says Sarah from Botswana.1
But knowledge alone is not enough – young people, especially girls, need to feel empowered when it comes to sex.
One girl from Trinidad and Tobago says adamantly: ‘If he does not have a condom, the woman should say: “If you don’t have you can’t get.” ’1 But in practice it is difficult – in Canada one survey found although 85 per cent of youth claimed to be very knowledgeable about contraception, only 11 per cent of female university students and 19 per cent of male students always used condoms, which were seen as ‘uncool’.9 Girls and young women said they lacked the power to negotiate condom use and were subject to strongly held views about traditional male and female roles in sexual relationships.
Kids also need the law on their side. But often sex is illegal, with 15 or 16 being the average minimum age of consent. Shantal, a youth worker in Barbados, explains the dilemmas this can create: ‘A mother wanted to have the partner of her 13-year-old daughter arrested for statutory rape...The young girl said that she had not been raped and had willingly consented to sex. The young man, who was 21, was her boyfriend and she would never forgive her mother if she had him arrested. The case was eventually dropped because the girl refused to testify. Young people see themselves as sexual beings.’1
Young people are always going to have sex (or have it forced upon them). It is a denial of their rights to refuse them contraception and protection against stds. What is needed when a 13-year-old goes to a clinic or to a doctor for contraception is clear information, support and counselling to ensure that the teenager is able to choose sexual relations and is confident of their control over the situation. It is a basic human right to have control over your own body. In fact, it may even be the one thing anyone can truly ‘own’ – so why deny this to people just because they are young?
Young people have identified their needs in order to ensure they are informed, safe and empowered in their sexual relations. Before heading off to meet her friends in Baguio City, Maria offers a final opinion. ‘I am tired of being told what to do. I would like older people to listen to my experiences and my questions,’ she says confidently. ‘But change will be impossible if adults do not learn from us.’1
1 Interviews by Anouk Ride and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. Some of the names of people in this article have been changed.
2 Generation 97 (International Planned Parenthood Federation 1997).
3 Rights of women in relation to sexuality and reproductive health (Swedish Association for Sex Education 1997).
4 Reproductive Health Matters, November 1996.
5 Reproductive Health Matters, May 1995.
6 Sexuality and Youth Suicide, (Sexuality and Youth Suicide Project, Australia, 1997).
7 Janet Hadley, Abortion: Between Freedom and Necessity (Virago 1996).
8 The Sex Files (Family Planning Association of India/Sex Education, Counselling and Training 1996).
9 Sex and Reproductive Health Rights in Canada
(website by Katherine McDonald http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/canusa/papers/canada/english/reprod.html )
This article is from
the July 1998 issue
of New Internationalist.
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