Why sexuality education in schools needs a major overhaul

The narrative around sexuality education is one of disease, danger and risk. Shutterstock

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 – if they’re even paying attention in the first place. These are the findings of research about sexuality education in South African schools.

The findings deserve particular attention as the country’s Department of Basic Education prepares to roll out comprehensive sexuality education in schools. This forms part of the implementation of the multi-sectoral National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Framework Strategy 2014-2019. The framework, says government, is an “action guide” to address “the gaps and challenges that adolescents are faced with to fully realise their sexual and reproductive health and rights”.

There’s another project related to adolescent sexuality in the works, too: the Department of Health is launching a programme to decrease transactional sex, teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence.

Sexuality education currently falls under the Life Orientation curriculum in South African schools. Its aim is to help learners make healthy and responsible choices around issues of sexuality and relationships.

Our review of research conducted on sexuality education in South African schools identified five major themes that point to a need to thoroughly rethink sexuality education

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 characterised 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. These contradictory gender messages unknowingly serve to undo some of the curriculum’s aims, particularly as sexual violence in the South African context is intimately linked with gender inequality and the upholding of certain versions of masculinity that are enshrined in power and violence.

3) Disconnection

Many learners say they feel disconnected from what they’re taught in Life Orientation sexuality education. They view the content as largely irrelevant to their lives; the classes are seen as repetitive, boring, overly authoritative and teacher-centred. 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. This means that sexual and gender diversity is hardly discussed. Teachers and school managers often hold conservative beliefs, and parents are often strongly resistant; teachers are not properly trained in how to conduct sessions about sexual and gender diversity.

Added to this, many Life Orientation programmes maintain heteronormative concepts of gender. These help to foster a culture of heterosexuality and further marginalise lesbians, gays and bisexuals in the schooling system.

5) Teachers’ responses

When it comes to sexuality education, teachers are caught between contradictory values that aren’t always easy to reconcile: national policy and curriculum, the school, personal beliefs, and social and cultural pressures that are often conservative.

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, counsellor, 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.

Recommendations

There are several ways to address these concerns so that the curriculum becomes more empowering and relevant for both learners and teachers.

Researchers argue that the model of stressing risk – in light of danger, disease and damage – and responsibility (to take up the “correct” path of behaviour) 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 programmes 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 centre 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.

It’s crucial to undermine the heteronormativity and gendered binaries that currently exist in these programmes. One way to do this is to train teachers in the sexual and reproductive rights that underpin South Africa’s constitution and much of its health legislation.

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.

Author’s note: Jonathan Glover, a Master’s student in Clinical Psychology at Rhodes University, co-wrote the policy brief on which this article is based.