Culture counts in sex play

In the previous two columns of this series, I examined ignorance, risk-taking, the early onset of menstruation, psychological problems, family and peer influences and coercive sexual relations as factors in teenage pregnancy.

In this column I will focus on socio-economic and cultural factors and the role played by health services. Adolescents who have children have been labelled as ‘perpetuators of the cycles of poverty”.

Some researchers maintain that poverty and low education play a large role in teenage pregnancies. This is because parents in lower socio-economic groups have little influence or interest over their teenage daughters, poor teenagers are forced to sell sex to older men, and older children often take on a babysitting role, thus preparing them for early motherhood.

However, as has been noted in the United States, the association between teenage pregnancy and poverty is not clear-cut.

There are a number of problems with the studies that make this connection.

Very often researchers study teenagers who are present at government clinics or hospitals. Because these teenagers come from poorer households they conclude that teenage pregnancy and poverty are associated.

But, were they to compare these teenagers with teenagers in general in the area from which the clinic or hospital draws its patients, they may find that these teenagers do not differ significantly from the pregnant ones in terms of socio-economic status.

Furthermore, if one only studies teenagers present at government clinics and hospitals, one will be missing teenagers at private hospitals or private medical practitioners.

The emphasis on cultural factors takes two forms. Firstly, it is argued that ‘traditional”’ culture, which controlled sexual behaviour among adolescents, has been broken down by a process of acculturation (where one culture is replaced with another).

Researchers argue that traditionally adolescents were instructed on sexual matters during initiation ceremonies and that a certain amount of sex play was expected and allowed after initiation, although this did not include penetrative sex. Adolescents were, rather, taught about intercrural sex [essentially thigh sex]. Vaginal inspection was performed to ensure virginity in women and a special token was sent to the parents of the young woman if she was found to be a virgin after marriage. Marriage was controlled and supervised by the family and early marriage was discouraged.

This idealised picture is seen as having been broken down by urbanisation, formal schooling, the erosion of patriarchal family structures and the influence of Christianity. This has led to a decline of initiation schools and vaginal inspections. Adolescents see their parents as ignorant and uneducated and do not respect them.

Taking on Western culture has led to teenagers being psychologically isolated, while Christianity has shifted the emphasis from sex play to abstinence.

The problem with this view of culture and tradition is that it treats them as if they were static or never-changing.

Particular behaviours are held up as tradition with the view that tradition can only be seen as either remaining intact or disintegrating. There is no room for seeing culture as fluid and changing, where there is a continual process of including and excluding various practices in a dynamic way.

Some researchers have attempted to counter this static view of culture, showing how traditional practices are interwoven with modern ones in ways that allow for people to face and deal with challenges such as a daughter falling pregnant.

Secondly, and contrary to the above picture in which tradition is seen as preventing teenage pregnancy, it is argued that there is a high cultural value placed on fertility.

This implies that tradition and culture promote teenage pregnancy.

It is argued that young women feel it is important not to get the reputation of being infertile. They believe that bearing children is an essential part of being a woman and of achieving success as a woman.

The contribution of poor health-service provision in terms of sexuality education and family planning services has also received attention.

There are a number of issues at stake here, including inadequate budgets, insufficient staff, staff not being specifically designated and trained for the job, teenagers feeling shy about using the services, adolescent services forming part of over-crowded adult family planning services, a lack of support from surrounding communities, and little cooperation between schools, clinics, and youth health centres.

In conclusion, thus, teenage pregnancy is a complex issue.

Although researchers attempt to throw light on the subject, there are often difficulties in the ways in which they conduct their studies and the sorts of assumptions that they make. Educators need to learn to read research with a critical eye, and to take from it information that fits with their particular circumstances.

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