Teen sexuality a dirty word

  • Kim Johnson & Melissa Meyer - 16 November 2012

This week’s coverage relating to teenage sex reflects South African society’s reluctance to take a sex-positive approach to adolescent sexuality, particularly when it comes to HIV-positive teens.

Teen pregnancy and HIV testing in schools made news last year (although direct links between the two were seldom drawn) and more recently, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s plans to distribute condoms in schools have been a bone of contention.

While Motsoaledi might be taking a more sex-positive stance on teen sexuality, the public continues to display a deep-seated aversion to acknowledging—let alone truly addressing—the topic.

Suggestions of HIV testing and condom distribution in SA’s schools have been and continue to be met with considerable moralistic backlash.

News coverage of teen sex and teen sexuality often reflects this discomfort with the budding of sexuality that is part and parcel of adolescence.

Even harder to swallow: Sexuality and HIV-positive teens

Adding HIV into the equation makes this blind-eye approach even more alarming, given that more and more children born with HIV are living into adulthood and have to cope with their new found sexuality in the context of their HIV-positive status.

An article in The Times this week (9 November 2012) reflects the lack of a sex-positive approach to teen sexuality, especially when it comes to HIV-positive youngsters.

Quoting Nkosi’s Haven founder Gail Johnson, the article gives the impression that sex is completely off the cards for persons (and in this case especially adolescents) living with HIV: ‘”People say HIV is a chronic manageable disease. But it is not like diabetes because with diabetes you can sleep with as many people as you want”’.

Besides Johnson’s comment being a bit off-kilter because it seems to suggest that ‘sleeping around’ when you are diabetic is risk free (unprotected multiple sexual partnerships are high risk in terms of HIV infection for everyone), it is also problematic because it suggests that HIV-negative people can have active sex lives and that people living with HIV cannot and should not.

There is no need to shirk teen sex and teen sexuality, even if those teens happen to be HIV-positive. There are a plethora of technologies available that make safe sex possible in the context of HIV.

Treatment as prevention, post-exposure prophylaxis and pre-exposure and the tried-and-true condom are different strategies, which together offer a robust HIV prevention package.

Discussion around safe-sex options for teens (positive or not) also needs to be paired with thorough counselling, and again there is no shortage of guiding material for this task. It is those meant to be providing the counselling—teachers, parents and health care workers—who seem to be reluctant. 

Facing facts head-on

While The Times might have shied away from exploring how (positive) adolescents can have safe sex, an opinion piece in the City Press by health reporter Zinhle Mapumulo brazenly took on the public for its coy approach to teenage sexual health.

Mapumulo bucked the trend of failing to connect HIV and teen pregnancy, using relevant statistics to point out that HIV-positive pregnant teens should serve as a reality check for those who want to deny that (unprotected) adolescent sex is happening.

Mapumulo’s piece is also introspective, as she takes the media to task and blames “half-baked news stories” for failing to properly explain to the public why adolescents’ access to information and contraceptive methods is so important.

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“There are a plethora of technologies available that make safe sex possible in the context of HIV”