Changing Views on Adolescent Sexuality

It has been quite a while now since I was a teenager; yet not so long that I have forgotten some of the defining moments of that potentially troublesome period known as adolescence. I remember being told that I should avoid the ever-present dangers of pre-marital sex at all costs, which ranged from being labeled as a "slut"; to becoming pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection. I also remember how my body felt as a teenager—how I existed in an almost constant state of arousal—and the internal conflict that came from trying to process the ideas of sex as "wrong" and the contradictory information being fed to me by my peers, and by my body itself.

In the Caribbean, the ever-present influence of fundamentalist Christian attitudes has shaped societies in which discussions around issues related to sexuality are often met with resistance, or vehement opposition. Culturally, we have come to think of sex and sexuality as taboo issues; thereby denying large sections of the population access to well-rounded information; and to the presence of safe spaces in which we can address the feelings, challenges, joys and questions that may arise from our varied experiences as sexual beings. This is particularly problematic when we consider issues such as adolescent sexuality.

The risks related to adolescent sexuality have over the years become more apparent. In the case of Jamaica, recent research has highlighted how potentially volatile the sexual landscape is for adolescents. Factors such as early sexual activity are exacerbated by insufficient relevant information; understaffed health care services and negative cultural attitudes to the provision of sexual education to children and adolescents. These and other factors collectively work to compromise young people's development of skills that will enable them to avoid risky situations.

In the face of this ever-changing sexual environment, the Jamaican government has made moves that could lead to the creation of safe spaces in which adolescents can openly receive sexual health education. Programmes and policies such as the revised National Youth Policy (2004, PDF), the National HIV/AIDS Policy (PDF) and the Jamaica's Solution to Youth Lifestyle and Empowerment (JA-STYLE) program have collectively sought to place emphasis on youth-focussed issues, assist youth-oriented non-governmental organizations with capacity-building, increase youth participation in the national HIV/AIDS response and to improve health services for young people.

Central to these and other programmes geared towards the development of healthy adolescents, and by extension healthy adults, must be the fostering of positive attitudes to, and understandings of, sexuality. This fact, should lead us to ask some of the following questions: "What would constitute healthy adolescent sexuality?" and ultimately "what actions can we take towards the development of healthy adolescent sexuality?"

The idea of "healthy adolescent sexuality" is itself an anathema for many. One of the socio-cultural ideologies holds that exposing children to information about sex will inevitably lead them to engage in unchecked sexual activity. In the text, "The Adolescents of Urban St. Catherine: A Study of their Reproductive Health and Survivability" (2004), health care personnel reported the persistence of "old-fashionedness, denial and hypocrisy in the society" as one of the major challenges faced in their provision of sexual education services.

In addition, students themselves recounted the opposition met by pharmacists when trying to purchase condoms, a challenge which reportedly forced some of them to buy condoms in corner shops—many of which stored the condoms in conditions that would compromise their effectiveness. The inherent danger in this denial becomes evident in the case of one teenage male who, having used a plastic bag as a condom stated, "Me nah mek de pussy pass me, and me nah catch no AIDS".

The unwavering belief in the abstinence-only approach to the sexual health of adolescents is a dangerous one. When we allow personal and religious beliefs to unquestioningly shape the ways in which we speak and listen to young people, there is the potential for key messages to be lost. A large number of adolescents are having sex. This is a fact. How will we choose to deal with this reality? Sticking our heads in the sand, criticising attempts to educate them honestly, or berating their actions does little to provide them with the tools that can save their lives.

By focusing solely on the negative outcomes of adolescent sexuality, we reinforce the idea that it is inherently pathological. We need to reconstruct the ways in which we perceive adolescent sexuality, seeing it instead as a normal and potentially powerful part of teenagers' lives—so long as they are provided with the tools to manage their changing bodies, and to negotiate within the sexual arena. By creating environments in which we help to educate teenagers honestly we will help them to empower themselves to make wise sexual decisions.

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  • invalid-0

    I found this article extremely interesting and right “on point,” especially with regards to the conservative and potentially naive Caribbean perspective on adolescents and sexuality.

    Brilliant article.

  • invalid-0

    Well written, informative article with astute observations on Caribbean attitudes to sex and sexuality.

  • invalid-0

    This article should have been written at least 20 years ago and parts of it should be used as a billboard for everyone to see.

  • invalid-0

    Another great article. I saw your last piece and I was impressed with how well you captured Caribbean attitudes towards pregnancy and motherhood. Once again you have clearly done your research and have produced, in my opinion, an even better article. Having been raised in the Caribbean, I can attest to the attitudes outlined in relation to teenage sexuality. I am pleased to see that teens have somewhere to go to for sound information. It is wonderful having a Caribbean voice on this website. Looking forward to your next piece.

  • invalid-0

    I just read this article twice. To say that you have ‘hit the nail on the head’ would be a gross understatement. Please forward this article to all Teachers’ Colleges across the Caribbean.

  • invalid-0

    Very good article Oyadele.

    As a Jamaican male who was born and raised in the same Saint Catherine cited in one of the studies, i can attest to the validity of your main points.

    i remember having sexual relations with girls in the neighbourhood as early as age nine. Although i was almost totally clueless, human bodies provide so much “organic sexual instruction” that even if other issues didn’t become a concern until later, pleasurable physical interaction was certainly a reality for me, even at that tender age.

    Now, as a 34 years young father of two, i know that open sexual dialogue will be something in which i engage my children. Knowledge is power and while some may retort that ignorance (especially in the young) is bliss, i fully agree that the creation & maintenance of safe spaces where adolescents can gain and share important information, is clearly the wise and responsible thing to do.

    Blessup and see you at de beach! :)

  • invalid-0

    In the past, society glamorized smoking, drinking and turned a blind eye to recreational illegal drugs. Recently society has woken-up to the dangers of smoking, drinking and illegal drugs. We’ve woken-up to the notion that we need to operate with a higher set of values and principles. Today, instead of abusing these things, members of society, young and old, now abuse our sexuality and operate with little or no values or principles. In many cases you can say sex is our new addiction. So, it’s no suprise that children are having sex. We teach kids to say “no” to smoking, drinking and drugs but instead of promoting abstinence (having a high set of values for when to have sex), we give them how-to instructions for all kinds of sex acts.

    Let’s face it, you’re article is an elegent way to tear down of a set of high principles of sexuality and to rationalize sexual promiscuity.

    My favorite moment was watching Barbara Walters on The View, incapable of defining “slut”. In these days of moral relativism, even Barbara Walters is morally lost.