Childhood Sexuality is a Reality, UKZN Study Finds
A revolution of thought is required which accepts children as being sexual, says Professor Deevia Bhana, the recently appointed DST/NRF South African Research Chair: Gender and Childhood Sexuality.
‘If we accept this, we have better opportunities to address the problems that currently beset our country. For as long as we deny and stigmatise young people’s relationships and interest in sex and sexuality, we further entrench the problem and increase teenage vulnerability to pregnancy, HIV and violence,’ she said.
Bhana made this statement during the presentation of her study titled: “Sex, Gender and Money in African Teenage Conceptions of Love in the HIV Context”.
Bhana’s research investigates children’s gendered and sexual meanings and ideologies in order to address and intervene in ways that secure sexual health, well-being and gender equality.
According to Bhana, ‘sexual debut’ is currently at around 14 years old but is declining. ‘This presents both concerns and opportunities to face the issue head on in ways that are revolutionary. We cannot proceed to work with children as sexually ignorant because this has proved to be ineffective, outdated and it doesn’t come from the perspective of what young people want and do,’ said Bhana.
Her project focuses on South African teenagers’ interest in and preoccupation with sexuality. ‘At the crux of HIV is sex and because the epidemic starts mainly among people in their teenage years, understanding how teenage sexualities are constructed is vital for promoting sexual and reproductive well-being.’
The study was conducted in various contexts and with teenagers both rich and poor but focuses on teenagers located in conditions of poverty and the ways in which they negotiate relationship dynamics and the social processes through which they give meaning to relationships and to sex.
She said the economic contexts have effects on teenage sexualities. The study raised concerns about young women’s idealisation of men with money as well as women’s vulnerability to crime and violence in extreme settings.
According to Bhana, teenage sexuality is often considered dangerous, undesired and stigmatised creating panic and moral condemnation. ‘This is the wrong focus as it leads to an underground sexual culture where teenagers hide, are discreet, and often deny sexual interests and activities. In contrast to adult centric approaches to childhood sexuality, my research suggests that teenage men and women have interests in relationships and sex beyond simply the popular discourse of danger and disease.’
She said teenagers engage in and are motivated by sex but without the accompanying support for their health and sexual well-being. ‘The stigmatising of childhood sexuality has inadvertently increased the pressure on teenagers to engage in sex in a secretive manner, increasing the burdens related to teenage pregnancy, women’s vulnerability to HIV and violence within intimate partner relations.
‘We have tried far too long to deny childhood sexuality. We need something new which permits an understanding of children beyond sexual ignorance. Supporting law which decriminalises sex amongst consenting young people is an advancement and a move in the right direction,’ she suggested.
She is currently writing books on childhood sexuality in primary school as well as a co-edited collection focusing on gender and young families with specific attention to teenage mothers.
‘My recent appointment as the South African Research Chair has raised the profile of the research with children, gender and sexuality, especially as it concerns the major social problems of violence, HIV and inequalities,’ said Bhana.