Let's really talk about sex, baby: Improving sexuality education for children

In 2011, the Department of Basic Education commissioned a review on implementing an effective HIV education curriculum, which found that the lack of scripted lesson plans left teachers floundering. (AFP)

In 2011, the Department of Basic Education commissioned a review on implementing an effective HIV education curriculum, which found that the lack of scripted lesson plans left teachers floundering. (AFP)

“Be the adult you needed, when you were a child,” says Doc Eli.

It sounds a simple idea, but it captures why Sister Ruth Loubser and Dr Eli Rosen’s sexuality and relationships workshops are so popular with the teenagers they teach.

A lack of proper sex education put her at great risk as a teenager, says Loubser, a nurse.

She has been teaching sexuality and relationships education (“SRE”) at schools for two decades, and a year ago Dr Rosen joined her as co-facilitator.

READ MORE: Northern Cape project gets boys switched on about sex

When Loubser had a clinical practice, high schoolers would call and ask for her, she says. “They felt comfortable with me. One day I was going to give a talk about sexuality at the church, and I didn’t know what to present. So when one of the girls came in I said, ‘What would you like to have answered if there was no judgement?’ And she immediately said, ‘Can you get pregnant from oral sex?’”

Teenagers still ask questions like these, says Loubser - showing that basic facts are often not being communicated clearly by parents or teachers.

Sexuality education forms part of the Life Orientation curriculum in South African schools. The Department of Basic Education defines it as “the study of the self in relation to others and society”. It is meant to help learners navigate the challenges of growing up.

LO is a broader subject, encompassing topics like social and environmental responsibility, human rights and career choices. Gender roles and decision-making regarding sexuality, for example, are included under development of the self in society.

SRE, as Rosen explains it, covers a comprehensive sex education curriculum with a focus on decision-making, communication and relationship skills; it’s not just about the mechanics of sex.

It’s a broad topic within a subject that already requires a wide range of knowledge and has placed a heavy burden on teachers - leading to questions about whether schoolchildren’s sexuality education is adequate.

READ MORE: Sex education lacking at schools

In 2011, the Department of Basic Education commissioned a review on implementing an effective HIV education curriculum, which found that the lack of scripted lesson plans left teachers floundering.

So in 2015 the DBE began developing and testing lesson plans for grades 7-9, which were approved for national rollout this year, says Amanda Rozani, Acting Director: Health Implementation.

Over 1200 teachers have been trained on the implementation of standard lesson plans in four provinces. The department is now developing lesson plans for grades 4-6 and 10-12, says Rozani.

The organisation loveLife is also working to fill gaps in sexuality education. In two focus groups it organised, teenagers talked of the sexuality education they are getting - the gaps, and what they feel they need.

There were two groups of students from different high schools, five boys aged 16-17 from Soweto, and eight girls aged 17-19 from Vrededorp.

The boys all have relatively young male Life Orientation teachers, with loveLife facilitators who sometimes come in to teach sex education classes. They say that it doesn’t matter to them whether their teachers are men or women, but agree that there are questions they would not want to ask in front of the girls in their class. “Personal questions” about their bodies, Brandon says.

Mandla explains the difference between loveLife and their teachers: “The teachers use textbooks. It’s not about real life.”

Loubser said, when she started, it was her teacher friends who began asking her to give sex education talks to their own classes.

Her approach to SRE — ask children what it is they need to know — grew from there.

Schools send her and Dr Rosen (the team is called “Sexy Smarts”) anonymous questions from children before their talks.

This made them aware that there was a need to address gender questions more specifically. Rosen, an LGBTQIA activist, uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, and asks learners to call them Doc, instead of Sir or Ma’am.

“Ruth had one school where there was a child who was gender-nonconforming, possibly trans, so she asked me to come in and do the gender and sexuality section,” Rosen says.

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Sometimes, if teachers are uncertain about how to react to Rosen’s visibly queer presentation, Loubser mentions that the two of them met at Bible study.

“I tell them I am married and have two children, which usually reassures them,” quips Rosen.

Sister Ruthie and Doc Eli’s huge popularity is partly because they turn education into something that is fun and interactive — not just PowerPoint, but lots of jumping and silly hats. Their office has a drawer labelled “CLITORISES” that contains several bright-red, oversized 3D-printed models of the clitoris.

With loveLife, interaction through mentorship, peer to peer education and physical activity is important. The girls from Vrededorp play in a netball team; their coach, 23-year-old Marvellous Ngobeni, is a loveLife facilitator.

In their conversations, they focus more on relationships, especially issues of power and control, and domestic violence. The girls want younger LO teachers, they say, who know how to connect with them.

READ MORE: Ugandan sex clinic gets the youth talking

“Some teachers still say things like ‘men should be the head of the household’,” says Shandré, who wants to be a lawyer. They vehemently disagree.

“I left my baby’s father because he wanted me to be submissive,” says Lemo. “It’s important to me to be independent. I want to be a social worker.”

The information they get relating to sex is very much focused on negative consequences: HIV and other STIs, teenage pregnancy. Lots of their friends already have babies.

“Girls don’t have abortions,” says Mondli. “The families will rather look after the babies.”

Yes, says Mandla and Kenneth, teachers tell them not to have sex before marriage, “because it’s in the Bible”.

Do they agree? The group turn to Brandon to answer. “It’s rubbish,” he says decisively.

This is partly to do with the the official focus, which remains on preventing negative consequences of sex.

But Alex Gordon*, a teacher who also trains other educators in teaching SRE, explains that informing children about pleasure is also protective.

“It prevents feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, regret. You behave in a way that’s far more empowered and in control, and it protects against issues of consent because the boundaries are less likely to be overstepped. It allows you to make safer decisions that are in line with what you want.”

Prof. Deevia Bhana, Research Chair in Gender and Childhood Sexuality at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), says that in the context of South Africa’s social problems, sexuality education is treated as important because it can address the dangers of sex. But the focus on sexual danger has created a “problematic paradox of focusing on sexual danger to uplift people from sexual danger.

“Failing to address the needs, the wants, the desires, the pleasures of young people has resulted in sexuality education going wrong. Sexuality is silenced. There’s a myth that if you talk about sex young people will have sex, but this has been shown to be completely untrue,” says Bhana

The girls confirm that yes, they’re told mostly about danger. Do they think it is important to talk about the fact that sex is also pleasurable?

They pause, confused. They do talk about that, sometimes. Teachers have told them that if they’re going to have sex, they should do it now, because they’re young and sex will never be better, says Shandré’s friend Simone.

At least half the girls have heard this in class; so has Ngobeni. “I was in Grade 10 and the teacher said, if you’re going to do it, do it now. Your bodies are young,” she says.

Yet, they’re also told to abstain until marriage, says Lemo. They’re getting both messages at the same time, and this doesn’t make sense to them.

READ MORE: It’s no breeze to explain birds ‘n bees

Pleasure — whether sexual or otherwise — is a part of the human experience and it is important to acknowledge this, says Gordon.

“I think people misunderstand what sex educators actually mean when they talk about pleasure. Myself and other educators are not actually teaching sexual techniques. More education of parents is needed to prevent moral panic.

“Education about masturbation needs to be prefaced with a description: It’s about feeling pleasure when you touch yourself. You do need to talk about orgasm, otherwise they’re confused. It sounds explicit, but it’s about clarification. I prefer to use the term self-touch.”

Gordon points out that discussions around pleasure are often student-driven.

“They ask questions; they want and need to know this to reduce feelings of guilt and shame. It’s one of the most taboo topics in sex education and needs to be handled sensitively. Of course it needs to be age-appropriate.”

However, teachers worry that if they do address sexuality beyond the dangers involved, they might be accused of exploiting young people, says Bhana.

“This is a serious point, particularly for male teachers who are regularly reported to be having inappropriate sexual relationships with children. So to address sexuality more comprehensively is quite threatening for teachers; not only are they poorly trained, but also there is the fear of community repercussions.”

READ MORE: Contraception at schools on Gauteng’s agenda

She adds that our model of education still reflects striking inequality. “Some schools are completely dysfunctional; access to basic essentials like toilets remains an outrageous example of the kind of inequalities that we should not be seeing. And then we expect teachers to address comprehensive sexuality education amidst these turbulent times.”

The educators interviewed are all dedicated to improving sexuality education for South African children. Its necessity is reflected in the hundreds of feedback forms Loubser and Rosen have collected, testament to the relief of being able to speak openly.

“I still think I’m weird,” one child wrote, “but I feel like it’s OK for me to be weird.”

*Gordon is using a pseudonym to protect their privacy.

Louise Ferreira is one of three finalists in the annual Isu Elihle “Great Idea” Awards by Media Monitoring Africa which aim to give children a voice and elevate the status of the child in Eastern and Southern Africa. This piece was made possible by the support of Save the Children International and the Swedish International Development Agency. 

Louise Ferreira

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