Not in modern, developed societies, where much-valued education has given rise to this phenomenon called ‘adolescence.’ During this period of life, people are half-child, half-adult—physically and sexually mature, but without the adult responsibilities of earning a living and caring for a family, still living under mum and dad’s purview, on their allowance, still going to school.
And while our minds have come to accept adolescence as a natural phase of life, our bodies have no clue what that is. Girls and boys hit puberty between the ages of 10 and 12, and after that, it’s all systems go. We have crushes, wet dreams, fantasize about our first kiss (or more), masturbate and start being curious about sex.
The thought of a child becoming a sexual being though fills the hearts of many parents with fear and abhorrence. The reasons are many: we can’t imagine our innocent, virginal babies growing up and having sexual desires; social attitudes are conservative and only sanction sex after marriage—which these days happens later and later, if at all, certainly well after a person has hit sexual maturity. And we naturally want our children to be ready to cope with the responsibilities that come with being sexually active—the possibility of having a child and knowing how to look after one’s sexual health.
Yet as we continue to try and put a lid on teenage sex, our adolescents are having their way. It’s no secret that teenagers in Singapore are becoming sexually active at a younger age and are more open in their attitudes towards sex.
A recent survey by the National University of Singapore revealed that, of the 900 sexually active teens they polled, 75 percent did not know how to use a condom. And, just last month, the Ministry of Health published statistics that the number of HIV+ people under the age of 29 has doubled in the last seven years, and now account for 20 percent of new cases of HIV.
So clearly, although the prevailing message is ‘say no,’ many teenagers are saying ‘yes’—and then not having a clue.
When MOE recently announced revisions to its sex education programmes, The Growing Years and eTeens, that essentially reinforce an abstinence-only approach, I think they’re not addressing a major part of the picture.
Safe sex is obviously a key part of sex education, but is a controversial area when pertaining to sex education for teenagers. A large camp balks at teaching teens how to use, say, condoms and feels it will only encourage teenagers to have sex, while more progressive parents think it’s better for their kids to be safe than sorry.
But while it’s easy to fault MOE’s programmes for what they don’t say, it’s harder to answer the question—what should we be saying to our teens then? On one hand, we should acknowledge that they are sexual beings; on the other, I can’t imagine parents saying to their teenage sons or daughters to ‘go for it!’
There is a middle ground—and quite a well-established one. Known as the ABC approach to sex education, this path is based on the concept of harm reduction. Standing for ‘Abstain, be Faithful, use a Condom’, it advocates abstinence as a failsafe way to prevent pregnancy and STDs (true) but also talks about safe sex and condoms.
This approach arose as a practical way to help prevent the spread of HIV while not sacrificing moral tone and has become popular in the US, in parts of Africa as well as amongst NGOs and some religious organizations.
It seems to strike the right balance: the ideal of abstinence is still advocated but the reality of our sexual nature also acknowledged and protected. Adopting this or something similar for our Singapore community will require a leap of faith but might be one we want to consider taking—if the current trend of teenage sex continues.
The ABC approach is not without issues, of course. For instance, teenagers span the ages of 13 to 19, but while one might talk to a 19-year old about condoms, having the same conversation with a 13-year old would seem inappropriate, and lessons would need to be sensitive to the developmental difference of younger teens and older teens. Nevertheless, this approach allows for much more room for negotiating the complexities of teenage sex than any other.
When our children become sexually active—whether in their teens, 20s or later—there is one thing we can almost be certain of: they aren’t going to be telling us about it (do you talk to your parents about your sex life?). So it’s important they know how to look after themselves. That can mean saying ‘no,’ or if they find themselves saying ‘yes’—because they get carried away, because they want to feel grown up, because of peer pressure, because they are in love – they would at least know how to use a condom.