The Psychological Society of South Africa recently had their annual conference in Durban. It was a busy and diverse affair and I came away from it having learned much about the science of psychology and our country.
One of the more surprising, and troubling, things I learned is that our schools’ current life orientation curriculum could be driving our country’s young adults to pornography.
To understand why this might be the case one first needs to know a little bit about the sex education syllabus. The primary purpose of the syllabus is to arm high school students against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV and Aids, and it covers this material in detail.
The problem arises because there is an aspect of human sexuality that our country’s young people consider important but the curriculum does not: how to be “good” at sex.
There is a perception that if one wishes to hold on to one’s significant other then one needs to be able to satisfy, nay, impress them in the bedroom. And unfortunately the current sex education syllabus does not cover Masters and Johnson, Alfred Kinsey or Don Juan.
Thus, our students turn to a medium that they consider both practical and honest: hardcore internet pornography. These days this is available to anyone with a cellphone and a data bundle and although this is not necessarily bad it can have certain side effects.
Sex is, at its best, an intimate act between consenting partners that represents trust, physical closeness, an emotional connection and bodily pleasure. Pornography is a for-profit visual medium intended for the purposes of masturbation. And there is nothing wrong with that. Porn is found in almost every time and almost every culture. I am a sexual liberation feminist. I do not believe that pornography is inherently bad.
But the disconnection between the nature of the two acts, pornographic sex and actual sex, means that the type of sex one finds in mainstream pornography has very little to do with the real world.
This topic was also covered at the conference and what was found was that pornographic sex typically involves heterosexual pairs with a man who sports a six-pack (and is hung like a horse) and a woman who is sexually insatiable and lithe like a ferret (except a ferret with very large breasts). The sex that is portrayed begins with the man being sexually aggressive towards the woman and not taking “no” for an answer.
Foreplay involves removing one’s clothing as quickly as possible. The process moves from frantic pawing to oral sex, coitus and the scene’s “climax” (wink, wink) takes places upon the woman’s face. The sex itself is rough, mechanical and takes about 45 minutes.
I have no doubt that those of my readers who have actually had sex are currently shaking their heads in bewilderment.
This is definitely not the way real sex plays out. But with no source of information to contradict these tropes, South Africa’s students are left with little alternative but to take these representations as fact. This includes assuming that anal sex is universally enjoyed by both parties (it isn’t) and that one should employ sexual positions that are uncomfortable but photogenic. They learn that men have very large genitals and that women have no need of lubricant.
And most disturbingly of all they learn that no one uses condoms, ever.
This is precisely the message that the life orientation curriculum is trying to debunk. But when high school and university students were interviewed about this issue many openly stated that they consider pornography to be an accurate portrayal of desirable sexuality and that they actively attempt to emulate it.
What alternatives are there? Walk into Exclusives and buy The Joy of Sex, a book that they are too embarrassed to purchase and wouldn’t be able to afford anyway? They are unlikely to go to their parents for advice because doing so is still uncomfortable for many of us, so the only people left are their peers, who are just as ignorant as they are.
The fact is that the sex education syllabus simply does not speak to our country’s youth, and this becomes even clearer when one considers that students at Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, who are often in their 20s and 30s and may already have children, are given the same lessons as their teenage counterparts.
But altering the curriculum won’t be easy. It needs to acknowledge the dangers of unsafe sex without being overly negative. It must recognise that many of our high school students are sexually active, without being seen to be encouraging underage sex.
And it needs to find a way to counter the version of sex that pornography provides, which is inaccurate, unhelpful and, unfortunately, all too pervasive.
Andrew Verrijdt is a psychologist