Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Teen Sex

. . .

It may seem as if everyone you know has had sex or is involved in a sexual relationship. A lot of teenagers are sexually active, but many are not. When you make the decision to have sex, you have to think about the risks and consequences involved.

Sex can bring pleasure and closeness. But it can also cause an unwanted pregnancy, HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

- From Unit 5 (Teen Sex), in the National Curriculum-Mandated Gr. 10 Life Orientation Textbook

. . .

South Africa is a country with one of the highest rates of HIV incidence in the world. Based on a 2006 study, rates of infection vary from 15.2% of the population in certain provinces to 39.1% in others, levelling out to a national average of 29.1%. While some studies suggest that on the whole these numbers are declining, it is still impossible to deny the severity of the epidemic in this country. Education has and continues to be one of the best tools in preventing its spread, particularly among youth. As such, one would imagine that a substantial HIV/AIDS education and awareness unit would play a part in high school Life Orientation curriculum, right?


When preparing for the Unit on Teen Sex, I was looking through the textbook to get an idea of what was covered. When I read the above first few lines of the unit chapter, I assumed it was a brief introduction (the bolded words are the publisher's own) to a more in depth unit to come. It wasn't. I flipped through page after page searching for the part of the textbook that covered HIV/AIDS and STIs, and soon found myself at the end of the book.

Soon the realization hit me. The second part of the italicized bit above is the extent – the ENTIRE extent – of the education students receive as part of their Grade 10 Life Orientation (LO) course.

There was.
Not one.
Dedicated to this excruciatingly important topic.

I was floored. Convinced there had been some error, and I was missing some supplemental information that would comprise a unit on this subject, I approached the head of the LO department. She confirmed for me what I had discovered. But not to worry I was told, "They get a lot of information on HIV and AIDS in grades 8 and 9."

I won't bother getting all riled up about how ludicrous and inexcusable I found this, as there is no point in reliving that experience for you, dear reader. I decided then that at least for my students, learning about changing roles and responsibilities and traditions in the life cycles were going to take a backseat for a few classes, as we would together embark on a crash course in Teen Sex, Pregnancy, Condom use and yes, STIs and HIV/AIDS.

To the textbook's credit, there is a fair bit dedicated to the importance of not rushing into sex, and understanding that the decision to do so is theirs and theirs alone, as well as some discussion on pregnancy and methods of contraception. That said, I do take somewhat of an issue with the fact that along with Condoms, the Pill, and the IUD, they also list THE RHYTHM METHOD. That's right. 'Natural Family Planning' as they term it.

Natural Family Planning – Rhythm Method

Avoiding sexual intercourse during fertile days of the menstrual cycle.

Chances of becoming pregnant:

  • 1-9% if very careful every month
  • 20% or more if you are not


  • No costs
  • May improve couple's communication
  • No delay when ready to become pregnant


  • Body temperature and vaginal mucus must be tested every day
  • Does not usually work if periods are not regular
  • Sexual partner must be completely cooperative
  • Special teaching required
    (And oh yea, nice of them to mention):
  • Does not protect you against HIV or other sexually transmitted infections


Including one of the most risky methods of 'birth control' in a high school textbook for teenagers? And as the first advantage, listing the fact that it is free? But these kids are poor, right? Wow. Wowowowowowowow.

As with a previous lesson/discussion on Puberty, before delving into the unit on Teen Sex it I gave them the whole ‘we’re going to talk about things that make us giggle, we’re going to use words that make us blush, and that’s okay,’ bit. I indicated that they were encouraged to ask me anything or feel free to discuss a topic that they were curious about. No personal questions though. Had to reiterate this idea the and importance of boundaries and what is and is not appropriate in this context moments later when one of the more cheeky students in the class raised his hand to ask:

“Miss, how does it feel when you are having sex with your boyfriend?”

As of today, we have spoken about issues and questions to consider when making the decision to have sex and the importance of being comfortable with the decision to do so. We’ve talked about pregnancy (and dispelled a number of myths many of them believed about how easy it is to become pregnant), methods of contraception, the emergency contraceptive/morning after pill, adoption and abortion. I have introduced them to the dangers of pre-ejaculatory fluid/pre-cum and the difference between penetrative versus oral sex and the risks that each of them carry.

I feel it necessary to interject here and say that when discussing these topics with my students, while on the outside I am generally calm and collected, at times inside I am blushing terribly and giggling uncontrollably at the words that are flying around in this classroom of 50+ teenagers and me. In no small part I have to thank the sexual education educator’s training I received at Trails Youth Initiatives ( at a very young age, for helping me to feel comfortable doing so.

Next up is Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). When I asked them to tell me the name of an STI other than HIV/AIDS (as they have received ample education on this and are already somewhat familiar with it), not one student could give me an answer. Not one. This is especially frightening given how easy STIs are to pick up and spread, and how devastating many of the consequences can be if left untreated.

As such, when I met the class on Friday, I gave them homework for the weekend that consisted of:

a) finding out the name of one STI (not HIV or AIDS)
b) how it is transmitted
c) what/if there is any treatment/cure
d) bringing one condom to the next class

They have informed me that there are clinics all over the townships where they can get information and condoms for free, so this shouldn’t be too difficult of a task. We shall see. In case they weren’t successful however, thankfully my housemate who works for the Department of Health was able to provide me with a stack of Government-issued condoms.

My plan is to spend the next couple lessons looking at various STIs, HIV and AIDS, and to tie in an exercise practicing how to use condoms correctly using bananas as penises.


I am fully aware that I am deviating significantly from the established curriculum and that perhaps some parents may not be happy with the fact that their child’s teacher is asking them to bring prophylactics to school, but I’m willing to take the chance given what I think can be gained. Even if its only a little bit, and even if only one student decides to use a condom next time s/he has sex that maybe they wouldn’t have before. It’s worth it, right? Besides, as for the parents, didn’t a wise person once say that it’s always easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission? Ehm, maybe not.

In any case, I better run. Class starts in an hour and I’ve got a whole bunch of bananas to buy.


Mike said...

Miss you AA, love reading about your life down there, I'm so proud of you...

Les said...


Frankie Rothschild said...

So interesting that you can take an important topic like this and put on your spin. What a great feeling that you alone might make a difference - even if you prevented one incidence of SID. Kudos Alexandra. Had to laugh about the bananas, great visual! Keep writing, work goes on the back burner when I find a new entry. love Frankie