Here in Guyana, as is true in other Caribbean countries and the world at large, we have a sex-driven culture. From the music we play to the things we buy, somewhere along the line, we are bombarded with sexual innuendos and images. Culture of course shapes society and thought patterns; so while sex in itself is not a bad thing, not placing importance on comprehensive sexual education is.
Closely following Dominica, Guyana has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the region. While high teen pregnancy rates are substantially high all around, one must ask whether our sexual education or lack thereof provided to students’ plays a large role in our particularly high numbers.
There was a positive step several years ago when the Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) program was implemented. However, aside from the fact that only a portion of secondary schools have it, there is also the troubling reality that in accordance with the Ministry of Education’s policy, it is an abstinence only approach.
One can from a certain narrow perspective understand the calls for an abstinence only approach. Parents, teachers and policy makers believe that talking truthfully about sex can encourage children to partake in it and as such see an abstinence only approach as the way to avoid this. At some point however, when faced with irrefutable research that abstinence only approaches not only fails but see’s children engaging in riskier sexual behaviour than those with proper sex education has to be taken into consideration.
Abstinence only approaches curtail the conversation and often deliberately spread misinformation about safety, consent and contraceptive methods. It is understood that some parents do not want their children learning about sex in school but wilfully burying their heads in the sand and allowing their children scanty information is not something educational institutions should get behind. Comprehensive sex education should be mandatory. One cannot continue to deny that teenagers have sexual urges and send them out into the world unprepared about how to deal with these effectively and safely.
Growing up, I never had any real access to sex education. Everything I learnt was either through books, movies or scare tactics by adults. The first concept I had of sex was through a book. I remember reading the writers’ flowery descriptions of ‘invisible lines pulling them to each other’s body parts.’ Trying to rationalise this in my mind, I drew a picture of a man and woman standing apart and drew lines connecting their genitalia. At a young age, not associating sex with shame or with anything really, I hung the paper in the house and forgot about it until I was punished by a relative for drawing ‘nasty things.’ Then another family member, at the age of 12 casually told me that if I had sex I would develop cervical cancer.
Having a history of cancer in our family saw me fearing sex. I would still do it in subsequent years, but at the back of my mind there existed then and even now that fear that sex would equate to cancer, even while knowing better.
As I grew and my appetite for knowledge about sex grew, I would watch movies where sex was most often violent and relationships dysfunctional and for a long time, those images shaped my view of it. None of these things were helped by the fact that often, whenever persons were invited to my school to talk about sex, they would label it as something dirty, something only morally loose girls allow boys to do to them. Aside from being factually incorrect and giving the wrong ideas about sex, these sessions also helped to promote dangerous gender dynamics and constantly overrode the concept of consent as if that was not a necessary part of the conversation.
By ignoring sex as an option, parents and policy makers do not go in depth as they should in critical areas such as consent and safe sexual practices to avoid rapes, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. We cannot continue giving children our ideological pipe dream of them not having sex and waiting “for marriage,” because aside from the fact that marriage is not an option for everyone, it has been repeatedly proven that scaring teenagers into abstinence fails miserably. I think the question abstinence only defenders need to ask themselves is, ‘should children be educated on healthy sexual practices or should we continue pouring more money into fighting teenage pregnancy and diseases?’ We need to tackle the root, not its leaves.
No child should have to piece together information about sex on their own through various media, ill-informed family members and flagrantly lying health professionals. They should be able to ask questions and speak out about concerns they may have about sex and having those honestly answered and addressed. They should be thought that while sex can be a good thing, for those interested in it, it comes with consequences and as such preferably be held off until one reaches a mature age but if it occurs before that, they should be provided with necessary information to practice safe and consensual sex.