Research supervisor: Lynlee Howard-Payne
Sexual health education (SHE) has always been a topic of interest for me, both in terms of content covered in these lessons, as well as the learners’ responses to these lessons. Completing a master’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand gave me the opportunity to conduct my research on this topic.
I wanted to know how recent marticulants felt about the SHE they received, as part of their life orientation curriculum. The research was qualitative in nature, with data collected from five focus group discussions, with a total of 18 participants. All participants were first-year psychology students who had completed high school the previous year.
The results from this research are vast, however, two themes stood out for me:
- (i) SHE remains taboo and
- (ii) SHE is incomplete.
SHE remains a taboo topic
Even within lessons dedicated to discussing sexuality and sexual health, participants reflected on how they felt there was a taboo against having an open discussion, or asking questions. Some participants reported that the teachers’ discomfort with the topic perpetuated this taboo. For others, there was a sense that the teachers were leaving out information that they were uncomfortable teaching, while other teachers reportedly refused to teach SHE at all.
Some participants reflected on how the persistent giggling and disruptions during SHE lessons from peers, were due to the learners’ discomfort. That even when the teacher was comfortable with the content of SHE, the class was unable to sit through it, or take the lesson seriously. In some cases, those who wanted to engage in the lessons were mocked for being too curious and thus promiscuous, in the case of girls, or mocked for not already having the knowledge, in the case of boys.
This taboo against asking questions, and having open discussions about sexual health, has negatively impacted on the participant’s confidence to have sexuality based conversations – especially safer sex conversations – with their partners. Participants discussed how they would have liked to have learned about safer sex options, as communication skills for awkward topics, to have these conversations within relationships.
SHE is incomplete
There was an overwhelming sense that the content of SHE was perceived to be incomplete. This was based on the information participants had gained since completing high school, in addition to some participants having received more information on certain topics within their SHE. For some participants, this sense of an incomplete SHE was due to their SHE classes being separated by gender, and a sense that they two classes did not received the same information.
As mentioned above, the perception that teachers were withholding sensitive information left the participants feeling that vital information was missing from their SHE. This incomplete curriculum was commented on for many topics. For example, sexual anatomy – with specific reference to the female anatomy – was discussed as missing from SHE. The anatomy knowledge participants did have, was attributed to their biology lessons on reproduction.
For many participants, knowledge about contraception and protection against Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) was reported as incomplete. The participants knew that condoms were a theoretical method of protection, but discussions revealed that condom demonstrations and discussions on improving condom efficacy were missing from their SHE. There appeared to be a common perception that condoms were actually ineffective, leaving participants to enter the world of adult sexuality with a fear that any sexual activity will result in HIV, STIs and pregnancy.
In conclusion, this research revealed that even for the Matric class of 2014, the taboo against speaking frankly about sex prevents them from receiving comprehensive sexual health education. That this taboo effects both the teachers and the learners from engaging in discussions about sexuality, and from comprehensively covering all topic areas relevant to the learners.