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From David Patient and Neil Orr – “We have written a little book called SECRETS (Juta, 2014) to cover all the issues discussed below in our blog on What (and why) we teach our children about sex? It is written in easy-to-understand language to give children the information and let them read about it. Preferably, parents, read it yourself first. You may learn something...

SECRETS  is a factual and respectful guide to sexual development and health, peer pressure, bullying, substance use (drugs and alcohol), family planning, and sexual rights (and responsibilities) for Southern African teenagers. It is not an instruction manual on how to have sex! There are drawings (with labels) of genitals. That's as racy as it gets. 
SECRETS is quite unlike anything published before: It was developed from specific questions raised by young people over a period of 20 years, during AIDS Action roadshows and focus groups conducted by the authors, involving a million and a half kids around the region. It is a brilliant life skills document that deals with the kinds of sexual issues and questions that preoccupy young people. 

'Clueless and Proud of It': What (and why) do we teach our children about sex?

If you are a young girl living in South Africa and you are 12 years or older, you can legally request an abortion (without giving a reason), obtain contraception at government clinics, and have an HIV test. And no, you don't need parental consent for this, even though it is advised. 

About 25% of children in South Africa have had sex by the time they are 13 years old, and 50% of children have had sex by the time they get to high school (MRC, HSRC & Save The Children).

The average age at which children start having sex in South Africa is about at 14 years of age, usually without parental knowledge (Hicks, Vetten, 2011).  One in three young women has a baby by the age of 20 (IRIN, 2007).

One in eight (12.7%) of pregnant young women aged 15 to 19 years presenting at antenatal clinics had HIV (DoH, 2011).

Those are just some of the facts.

Take a moment to consider what all that means: First, about half of children have had sex before they get to high school, and secondly, many parents typically don't have a clue what their kids are doing, sexually.

And most importantly, teens are having babies, getting HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), interrupting education, to name just a few of the more obvious consequences. And we don't want to talk about sex ... Many parents and educators have expressed concern that 'sex education' (life skills) increases sexual activity for the simple reason that it makes young people more aware of their sexuality, and therefore they become curious to see what the fuss is all about. Research from 59 countries, (WHO/Lancet, 2006) shows that this is not the case:

School-based sex education increases awareness of risks, knowledge of ways to reduce the risks that come with sex, and leads to less risky sexual behaviours. 

Many parents and educators have a mental blind-spot when it comes to 'sex education'. For one thing, they have the notion that it somehow provides instructions on how to have sex! It doesn't.

Sex education is actually a little less exciting: It simply explains what happens as you reach puberty, what the various 'bits' (and their proper names) do from a biological perspective, what causes conception, how menstrual cycles work (including sanitary pads and tampons), why things are happening in various parts of the body as you get older, how to deal with peer pressure and bullying, how to say 'No!', what rape and sexual harassment is, how to prevent STIs and pregnancy, where to get help if you have a problem, gender identity, and the consequences of sex (e.g., STIs and/or pregnancy). It is pretty straightforward and factual.

So why the fuss?The answer is pretty simple: The entire subject makes (adult) parents and educators very uncomfortable.

The reason some educators and parents are so deeply uncomfortable about sex education is because of three things: They don't know much about the subject themselves; Religious and moral beliefs that view factual information as promoting certain undesirable behaviours; Traditions that prefer that things stay just the way they used to be (i.e., strong men who make all the decisions, and subservient women - preferably pregnant and in the kitchen). 

Ask a young woman about her menstrual cycle and she'll tell you that she has them, but ask her what is actually happening in her body, she is likely not to be able to answer you because she has never been given the information. And if she has, chances are there are a bunch of cultural or urban myths around this monthly occurrence, most of it completely inaccurate. If you don't believe me, test this yourself. Ask a young man what a wet dream is and you'll get the same response.

Our youth, for the most part, are clueless about their sexual bodies and we, the adults, need to take full responsibility for this state of affairs.

We have a generation or two of adults, who are supposed to prepare the next generation for lives ahead of them, who simply refuse to talk to their kids, largely because they themselves lack the knowledge and information based on biology and science. How is that serving our future? How is that serving our youth? From where we stand, it is a gross disservice to our future. They have to rely on media and peer-based inputs and both of these can be pretty distorted and misleading. Parents shift the responsibility to educators. However, most topics in the life skill programs in our education system are elective. If the educator is not comfortable with a specific topic, or has a strong religious or moral objection, they can simply refuse to do any kind of education around that subject, including sexual development. 

Here is one (of many) disturbing consequences of this 'Clueless and Proud of It' adult attitudes towards the subject of sexual development education:

Many young women, when they start having their periods, are not informed about what is going on. They are not informed about, for example, tampons and sanitary pads. As a result, they get humiliated at school when having their periods. So they stop going to classes for a week every month. They won't write exams if this occurs during their period.

Young women do not know that there are now sanitary towels that can be used, sterilized, and reused, for up to two years, making them very cost-effective. Did you know that? 

Do you know why a guy's one testicle hangs lower than the other?

Did you know that sperm can live inside the vagina for up to a week? (Hardy little blighters ... which makes 'natural' family planning a little more tricky than you expect). Did you know that some STIs can be transmitted by sharing towels and underwear? Do your children (or yourself) know how to check for breast or testicular problems on a regular basis? Can you calculate your bra size?

There are many such little bits of information that, till now have been largely unknown to both adults and young people.

These things do not belong in the arena of whispered secrets ... everyone needs this kind ofinformation. The reality is that with or without your approval, at some point your children will become sexually active. It is amusing (for us, not them) to bluntly ask a group of parents and educators to share at what age they started having sex. Also, when they first had sex, did they call home and ask permission? Hmmm... no matter how some things change, some things stay the same. And yet, when faced with growing children, the standard fallback advice adults give is "Just say no!". Did that work on you? 

Like it or not, and agree or not, there is a fair chance that your children over 12 years of age are sexually active in one form or the other, and you are not likely to know about. It's what the evidence suggests. So now what?

Many teens are practicing safer sexual practices like using condoms.

However, their use is not consistent, and for each one using safer practices, there are just as many who are not. Part of this can be attributed to ignorance and lack of correct knowledge but for the most part, it's the exuberance of youth and the belief that they are immortal.

With the introduction of anti-HIV medications (ARV's; Antiretrovirals) many youth are not scared of HIV infection and simply say that if they get infected, they'll take the pills. The scare factor is fading. 

With the above as a backdrop, isn't it high time, we the adults, took a leadership role, put aside our discomfort and educated ourselves around our own sexual bodies and then impart this potentially life saving information onto our children? At the very least, should we not be providing our children with resources to educate themselves, if we don't have the courage and conviction to do so ourselves?

An hour-long factual conversation could very easily prevent an unwanted pregnancy, the transmission of an STI, exposure to HIV or even the possible death of your child. No? Still too difficult?

Well, fortunately there is another way: SECRETS.

Neil Orr (MA Psych) and David Patient (MHT) have worked in the field of health and life skills for close to 25 years. They have also written The Healer Inside You and the widely acclaimed Positive Health.

David R. Patient  (MHT)
Email: david.patient@empow.co.za | davidrosspatient.empow@gmail.com
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