Remember squirming in your seat in your junior high school health class during the sexual reproductive system lectures? The boys and the girls were separated, and each learning about their own body parts and hormonal changes, as well as those of the opposite sex? Or what about those assemblies in high school where safe sex was discussed, complete with the presenter applying a condom to a banana, with giggles and snickering all around? Embarrassing as the education may have been, at least you received it. Many young people around the world never hear about sex until they are already engaging in it. By then, it is too late to prevent disease, infection or pregnancy. What is a shame is that in the USA, one of the world's most wealthy and developed countries, many students are not receiving proper sex-ed.
Purposefully withholding information from someone is like serving your dinner guests hamburger steak while you feast on a tender cut of fillet; it's not fair, and some might say morally objectionable. Imagine taking a modern world history course in Germany and any mention of the Holocaust has been omitted. Germans have an understandable right to be embarrassed by this shameful part of their history, but does that mean it should be wiped from memory or documentation? Yes, genocide is terrible, as are acts of torture and violence. They are crimes against humanity and probably considered sinful by any major religion which purports human behavior as good or evil. Pretending these activities never happened, however, does justice to no one.
From out of the awful come lessons of learning, forgiveness, tolerance, pain; lessons that might not be learned elsewhere. Lessons we must be taught because, although some find it offensive, each person can decide what to do with the information she receives once she has, in fact, receives it.
Sexual education is a topic which finds controversy from many people and groups worldwide. However embarrassing or morally objectionable it may be for some, each person deserves to know facts surrounding this aspect of health. Denying or only partially educating someone is not fair and ethically questionable. This is especially relevant in the place I stay, South Africa, where 25% of people die from a preventable sexually transmitted disease caused by HIV.
Abstinence-only education, as is practiced in certain areas in the United States, does not make sense for several reasons: 1) it presumes all pupils have the same moral objections to sexually active behavior, prior to marriage, as the design of the curriculum, 2) it purposefully withholds vital health information, and 3) it assumes that risky behavior will disappear if the mention of it is also absent. All of these reasons are irrational, unfair and unsafe.
Sexuality is an integral part of human life, like nutrition, clean water, family, love, and forming relationships with other humans in various aspects. In certain parts of Southern Africa, having multiple partners is common and encouraged according to tribal custom and practice. It stands to reason that there is more chance of spreading sexually transmitted diseases when more body parts are in contact with each other. What is devastating is the lack of knowledge, fear and denial surrounding the epidemic that exists here with HIV and AIDS.
Everybody knows the terms HIV and AIDS, but some people are clueless as to what they really are, how diseases are transmitted and treated, and how to prevent their contraction. Some common myths are that it isn't necessary to use a condom as long as the act is with someone from within one's own ethnic group; you can cure yourself of HIV or AIDS if you have sex with a virgin; if a woman inserts traditional herbs before having sex, she will not contract or spread the disease. A national leader recently became infamous for his comments about showering after sex and how that could reduce his chances of contracting HIV. However, after interviewing a cross-section of young people who live in rural villages in the Northern Cape province, I realize that sex-ed has come a long way in South Africa. It is no longer a taboo among popular culture. One woman in her late 20s said that no one talked about it when she was young, not even in schools, but that she learned from watching television. Advertising campaigns and special television programs have aimed to educate people about the diseases, how to protect themselves, and that they can abstain from having sex as long as they choose. Young people in their early 20s said they began to receive sex-ed starting in grade 7 or 8, and in high school they learned about condoms, safe sex, STDs and HIV/AIDS. An educator in my community says that, although HIV/AIDS is part of the curriculum starting in grade 1, many do not receive an education after grade 7, and people outside of the school are not discussing the issue.
Whether from fear, lack of knowledge, shame, or some other reason, sex is not discussed in rural South African life, although much is being had. Many parents here feel that talking about sex is not their job, their children are too young, or the parents themselves are unaware of certain facts. Healthcare groups who are trained to educate others in rural communities are sometimes actively educating others, sometimes they are not. Most of these people are volunteers, so they are not supervised or held to any recourse for lack of activity. The only momentum for conversation about sex, health and diseases is coming from self-motivated individuals in the community.
I have been fortunate to meet with two young women in the area where stay who are both HIV positive, who encourage others to get tested, declare their status (HIV), who speak at schools and churches and other community events to bravely tell their stories. They are passionate about breaking the silence and busting the myths that surround this deadly disease because they want others to have the chance to protect themselves. They are honest; they tell of their initial apprehension to get tested, their fears, and finally how they are living with HIV. They are gems, serving as leaders in their respective communities.
When facts are not presented clearly, whether about world history or sexual health, many myths and unhealthy practices abound. Blame it on the witches, bad luck, anything but the truth. From a humanitarian point of view, I am excited about the chance to talk openly about sexuality. Regardless if I have a moral objection to the behavior, telling the truth about the consequences of said behavior means more to me than whether or not I think said activities should happen. Any chance I get to help destroy a myth and arm a person with accurate information, so that person can then make an informed decision, truly makes my day. In a way, it is like traditional reference work-finding facts, facilitating education; the big differences are that there is no desk, no posted hours, and this information can save a human life.