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.