Since the beginning of time, sex has been seen as an expression of love, art, pleasure, human desire, the biological need to procreate or perhaps all of the above. The important takeaway there is that sex mean different things to different people but there is no denying that it will inevitably be a part of our lives. From religious texts dictating the parameters of sex to raunchier expressions of what sex can be like the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon, or Salt-N-Peppa’s infamous “Let’s Talk About Sex”; we are exposed to sex and the ways in which it is celebrated in many different ways. Interestingly enough, despite this, sex remains taboo in our society and it is evident in the way sex education is opposed.
Comprehensive sex education is widely believed to have a positive impact on developing healthy sexual habits. But how is it defined?
“Age appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sexuality and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information.” - UNESCO
Christofora Tirtawinata, a professor and author at Binus University, proffers that its purpose lies in “fostering self-understanding and self-respect by building sexual and social responsibility.” Sex education is widely celebrated for its positive impact on teenage pregnancy, HIV and other STD awareness, proper sexual health decision-making and understanding one’s sexuality. A 2016 UNICEF report identifies teenage pregnancy as a major challenge facing adolescents in Guyana, where the teenage pregnancy rate is the second highest in the Caribbean and 62% of adolescents fail to meet basic contraception needs. UNICEF attributes the absence of age-appropriate sex education as a substantial cause and also reports that comprehensive sex education can greatly reduce the spread of HIV among adolescents. The Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA) identifies this deficiency in sex education as a reason for dangerous sexual experimentation among youths, reporting that more than 50% of youths are sexually active and 35% of them are below 16.
Sex education in schools has seen resounding success in Holland which has the world’s lowest teenage pregnancy rate and reduced STD infections, attributed to well-designed programmes. The problem arises when we choose to prioritize our misconceptions about sex and sex-talks over the undeniable benefits of comprehensive sex education.
Some opposing views of sex education and the way it is approached in Guyana are undoubtedly painted by the brush of religious ideology declaring abstinence-only approaches as the most effective means of promoting sexual health, if not the only means. In fact, Rose Marie Belle Antoine, renowned Caribbean author and professor at UWI, opines that generally ideological and philosophical stances within the Caribbean are influenced by a particular concept of morality, social and cultural norms shaped by Anglo-Saxon Christian perspectives. One ought to question whether this inhibits us from seeing the larger picture as it relates to the welfare of our children.
Would we expect them to be proper accountants if we only taught them addition, without exposure to multiplication and subtraction? My point here is that abstinence obviously has its benefits but is simply one limb of sex education, which requires a more comprehensive and broader exposure to the issues they will undoubtedly face, including, inter alia, contraception, abortion, and sexuality. Issues which studies have shown lead to depression, unhealthy sexual practices and other ramifications for one’s physical and mental health.
Opponents are also largely concerned that sex education focuses primarily on sexual techniques and encouraging sexual experimentation. But this illustrates an information gap that needs to be properly addressed if the benefits of proper sex education are ever to be reaped. Even in countries where it is taught in schools, a major impediment is community perception often plagued by inaccuracies, myths and unwavering traditional values about marriage, gender roles, sexuality and restricted sexual attitudes. As such, in order to promote a favorable climate for sex education, sex educators and supporters must clearly identify and address opposing arguments that create negative beliefs about its purpose and impact.
If sex educators are imparting sexual health advice, which is then severely discounted by parents, this can defeat the purpose of comprehensive sex education. Perhaps this is why Joy Walker, an author and professor attached to the University of Bradford, suggests a hybrid approach with parents and professionals, especially in communities where parents have reservations about sexual education and are not exposed to accurate information. Parents’ biological sex and their own sex education, however vast or limited, influence the parameters of the sex education they provide to their children.
We ought not to discredit their important role in sex education. Studies have shown that contraception-use is generally lower among men and women without exposure to sexual health talks with their parents and being forced to learn through experience, which can lead to high-risk experimentation. Children rarely initiate the “sex-talk” out of embarrassment, lack of self-confidence, and primarily, the fear that their parents will think they are sexually active; an issue that is exacerbated in a society such as ours where sex-talk is taboo.
Several scholars proffer that we have a human right to such information to promote healthier practices, especially since it concerns public health and social issues. Additionally, some experts, such as Tirtawinata (introduced above) perceive a link between sexual abuse, a prevalent issue in our society, and the lack of sex education.
Sex education fosters healthy social and sexual responsibility by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, and non-judgmental information. Parents, teachers, professionals and other stakeholders in the future of our young need to realise the impact of properly designed sex education, free from religious inhibitions and societal misconceptions. Note, it is not about discounting the importance of religion and abstinence, but rather, broadening the spectrum of tools our youths need to promote healthy sexual practices in a society plagued with sexual health issues, gender and sexual-orientation discrimination and sexual abuse. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” – We must ensure that we prepare our children to tackle the plethora of possible issues that accompany their sexual growth and development.
It is time we talked about sex.
Heal Guyana is a registered, not-for-profit organisation which functions as a civil society platform that focuses on empowering Guyanese and influencing citizens toward positive behavior change.
The views expressed herein are those of the Author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Heal Guyana or its Executives.