Defend Truth


Let’s talk about sex education — it’s an old story, with plenty of new challenges

Let’s talk about sex education — it’s an old story, with plenty of new challenges
The author writes of the importance of comprehensive sex education for girls and boys is vital for promoting healthy personal and societal relationships. (Photo :iStock)

In some schools, particularly under-resourced schools, the subject of life orientation has no dedicated teacher, so the lesson is left open for revision of other ‘more important’ subjects or ‘taught’ by a teacher with either no training or little interest.

Sex education has changed over time. Think of the explicit scenes in the Netflix series, Sex Education which made its debut in 2019, and then cast your mind back to the stilted or non-existent discussion at family meals or in the school classroom.

Sex Education was a hit with 40 million viewers streaming the first series. It was popular probably because audiences are interested in sex. But more than this it surfaced the lifelong question of how older people speak to younger people about sex and intimacy and how people develop intimacy and trust.

It is often rightfully argued that girls in particular need sex education to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and to help them negotiate sexual intimacy. Yet boys are just as much in need. Sex is a relational thing!

It is helpful to recognise that the challenge today has continuities with the past. A century ago, while there was recognition of the dangers of engaging sexually at an early age, sex was mostly a taboo subject in school other than in biology lessons where reproduction in earthworms and sterile diagrams of the human body was as spicy as things got.

But there was public interest in contraception. In 1918 Marie Stopes published her Married Love which raised the issue in the UK but had to be published privately because it was deemed too controversial.

Cultural and social clash

Historically in Africa, approaches to sex and sex education were strongly marked by, on the one hand, the moralising hand of the church among European settlers and, on the other, norms and practices among local African communities. In the 19th century, the influence of the church spread beyond the gospel, prescribing forms of sexual behaviour, spreading homophobia and valuing virginity.

This basket of values meant that women were expected to be demure and chaste, sex was policed, and sexual matters were seldom publicly discussed. Among Africans, however, matters were more open although virginity was prized amongst women primarily as a means of controlling reproduction. Sexual experimentation among adolescents was encouraged. The historian, Natasha Erlank’s work has done much to show how two rival value systems clashed in the lives of converts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She notes that “rural communities preferred to proceed with sexual instruction through the medium of initiation schools”. These initiation schools included for boys isolated circumcision training where ways of being a man were taught. For girls, this often meant virginity testing.

On the other hand, “urban communities moved towards placing the responsibility for such education in the hands of both mothers within the home and educators, who were to be assisted by a growing body of literature on physical and social (or moral) hygiene”.

Despite the acknowledgement of the importance of sex in human interactions, sex education remained neglected and marginal in schooling curricula. South Africans largely remained coy about sex talk other than in private, although ideas about the male entitlement to sex were prevalent and unquestioned.

In schools themselves under apartheid, discussions of sex were confined to biology lessons where the details of amoeba reproduction were about as exciting as things got. Young boys (rather than girls) scurried to find pictures of bikini-clad models in Scope magazine as a way of addressing their sexual curiosity. For the older generation with deeper pockets and available transport, one could head for strip shows and Playboy magazine in Swaziland or later in South Africa’s homelands, Transkei and Bophuthatswana.

Shadow of HIV/Aids

But in the mid-1990s sex became a public talking point with the emergence of the HIV and Aids pandemic. Unlike in the US where it had primarily been associated with homosexual intercourse, researchers found that the disease was largely spread by heterosexual sex. Work by Quarraisha Abdool Karim and her colleagues discovered that the highest infection rates were among young African girls in northern KwaZulu-Natal. At the time, they reported the highest transmission rates in the world.

By the year 2000 HIV/Aids was estimated by Debbie Bradshaw and Rob Dorrington to be responsible for nearly 30% of annual deaths (165,859).

From the mid-1990s onward, researchers began to explore modes of transmission, focusing on heterosexual intercourse and the power of older men to insist on sex. Prior to this, the focus in the global North particularly had been on gay sex which meant that there was already a homophobic stigma attached to HIV and Aids by the time research began in South Africa.

Despite public disinclination to discuss sex, the pandemic forced the subject into the open with Aids education becoming increasingly common and public space beginning to feature coverage of condom use and sexual consent.

Numerous NGOs began to engage in sexual and reproductive health education while the National Department of Health devoted more resources to the pandemic. A current that ran counter to the healthy development of discussing sex was the denialism of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency which did much to hinder steps to combat the disease and by denying anti-retroviral drugs to infected persons, led to thousands of deaths.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Treatment Action Campaign admonishes Thabo Mbeki over HIV views following speech

Schooling and teaching

Parallel to these developments the shake-up of the school curriculum in the early 2000s saw the introduction of the subject life orientation (LO). This was a subject that was compulsory from Grade R all the way through to Grade 12. LO included “health education, life skills, career guidance, physical education, human rights education, and religious education” and was motivated, according to André van Zyl and colleagues, by the belief that it could contribute to “solving social issues such as poverty, abuse, violence, sexually transmitted infections, social breakdown, and unsafe environments”.

By this time the pandemic was affecting schools (learners, teachers and parents) and it was realised that not talking about sex was a poor, if not disastrous, way of dealing with the questions of young people.

But this realisation didn’t take the controversy out of sex education. What about its content? The call for abstinence as a way of dealing with “the problem of sex” was and remains strong. It is regarded as a means of delaying sexual debut, pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. And it often has a strong moral and religious underpinning. Many teachers and parents are likely to believe in this approach.

Sex education has a place within LO but it is often swamped by other elements within the syllabus. Although we don’t have a universal sense of how LO is taught anecdotally, it seems as though a number of elements limit its efficacy.

In some schools, particularly under-resourced schools, LO has no dedicated teacher, so the lesson is left open for revision of other (more important) subjects or “taught” by a teacher with either no training or little interest.

Although chalk-and-talk as a teaching method is no longer favoured, the content-based approach to teaching is still common and this does little to answer questions about emotion and sexual intimacy. Teachers are themselves carriers of values and these are not always friendly values.

There is a debate about how sex education should be taught featuring prominently the conservative position that teenagers should abstain from sex. This approach attempts to delay teenage sexual interest and activity in the belief that this will safeguard health (and morals). This is a deeply held belief across South Africa and is witnessed in belief in the practice of virginity testing despite its prohibition in the 2006 Children’s Act.

The need for gendered sex education has meant that government and particularly NGOs have taken on the work. But possibly the most obvious place to undertake sex education is in school. Most schools are public institutions. They have direct access to the young generation and their duty is to prepare the young for adult life and responsible citizenship.

‘Gender Ideology Training Programme’

The Department of Basic Education has responded to this with a proposal for a “Gender Ideology Training Programme in Primary and Pre-Primary Schools” with an accompanying “Early Childhood Education Toolkit”. The idea is to train primary and pre-primary teachers, and by extension, primary and pre-primary school children. This is a contentious attempt to introduce current debates about sexual identity into schools, but will it help pupils to become more skilled and knowledgeable about themselves and about relationships?

Questions of intimacy can’t be reduced to “ideology”, relationships can’t be addressed with formulaic training, vulnerability can’t be explored with course notes. The department’s proposal takes sex education seriously, but ignores the complexity of the subject and can be read as a blunt attempt to move with the times.

There continues to be a debate about whether sex education classes should in some instances be sex-segregated. Research has shown that mixed classes with young teenagers may not be best suited to discuss issues such as sexual intercourse, pregnancy and menstruation, which is why some teachers seek the cover of a sanitised biological approach to these issues.

And are teachers trained and ready to teach sex education? Some are, some aren’t. In a recent study by Emmanuel Mayeza and Louise Vincent conducted in five former “black” schools in the Eastern and Western Cape of South Africa, they found that lessons were moralistic and homophobic and did not create the space for the difficult discussions needed to tackle issues of sexuality.

Yet there may be hope. In a study based in schools in the Free State, Dennis Francis and Renée DePalma found that even teachers who believed in abstinence were prepared to acknowledge the value of broader comprehensive sexuality which included discussing relationships and safe sex.

The call to involve parents more actively in sex education is global and in South Africa. Ayobami Adekola has recently again raised the topic urging parents to talk to their teens. This is nothing new, but the fact that periodically such reminders are issued suggests that there remains a generational communication gap. DM

Dr Robert Morrell writes in his personal capacity. He is a Senior Research Scholar in the Centre for Higher Education Development (Ched) at UCT. He worked previously at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), the University of Durban-Westville, the University of Natal (now UKZN) and UCT.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.