Sex is dangerous and damaging. Men are predators. Women are victims. Only heterosexuality is acceptable. That's what learners are taking away from sexuality education classes by their counselors and teachers at school - if they're even paying attention in the first place. These are the findings of research about sexuality education in our schools.
The five themes
1) Danger, damage and disease
Sexuality education focuses chiefly on the negative consequences of young people engaging in sex. These include the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, of sexual violence and of pregnancy. Sex is characterized as something inherently risky. The positive or pleasurable aspects of sexualities don't get much attention. Young people are told "what not to do" by teachers who adopt a morally authoritative stance. They instruct learners about the "correct" way to conduct themselves sexually - always in light of possible danger, disease and damage.
2) Rigid gender categories
Life Orientation sexuality education often reinforces a fixed gendered order that features prescribed roles that young women and men "should" embody.
For example, men are assumed to take the lead in sexual matters. Young women are encouraged to take responsibility for their own sexuality - while at the same time identifying themselves as "vulnerable" and "passive". Young women are expected to police male sexuality. But they must also conform to prescribed gender practices where men's desires and needs take priority. Boys and men are depicted as largely predatory and girls as victims of sexual predation.
Many learners say they feel disconnected from what they're taught in sexuality education. They view the content as largely irrelevant to their lives; the classes are seen as repetitive, boring, overly authoritative and teacher-centered. Young people learn more from their peers about sex than they do in class.
4) Heteronormativity and homophobia
Same-sex relationships are considered unnatural, immoral, ungodly and un-African in many South African schools. Teachers and school managers often hold conservative beliefs, and parents are often strongly resistant; No gay, lesbians and bisexual talk which is okay.
5) Teachers' responses
Teachers find it challenging to create open dialogue in sexuality education while at the same time maintaining discipline. They struggle with the multiple roles they're expected to play in these sessions - teacher, confidante, counselor, social worker.
Researchers have found that teachers' confidence in teaching sexuality rises when they've been doing it for a number of years, have received formal training, are used to discussing sexuality with others and are working within a supportive school environment.
Researchers argue that the model of stressing risk - in light of danger, disease and damage - and responsibility (to take up the "correct" path of behavior) is limited. They point out that it doesn't accurately represent the realities of youth sexuality, in particular the youth culture within which young people are immersed, the raced and classed environments in which they live and the diversity of sexual identities to which they ascribe. Sexuality education programs should be designed to incorporate the positive and pleasurable aspects of sexualities in all their complexities, using young people's preferred cultural expressions of sexuality.
Young people's experiences and desires need to be taken seriously and their role within the education process appreciated. A learner-focused initiative that places the voices of young people at the center of their sexuality education needs to be developed.
Sexuality education also needs to disrupt gender stereotypes - particularly those that privilege male power and desire - to move away from prescribing fixed gender roles to young learners, and to highlight fluidity and empowerment.
Teacher training more broadly is very important. Teachers must reflect deeply on their own assumptions about sexualities and gender. They need better support and spaces in which to debrief. It's also important that they know about the protocols when dealing with reports of sexual violence or other sexuality-related difficulties.
By Catriona Macleod