Teen sex stats shock
April 29, 2005
By Di Caelers
Teen sex may well be the two words guaranteed to get parents
hyperventilating, but for teenagers the issue is a minefield of
confusion and social pressure that leaves them with extremely
tough choices to make.
It's too late - and completely unrealistic - for parents to
pretend it's not happening among their children's group of
friends. The statistics point to the reality: research that is
already two years old showed that in Cape Town nearly a quarter
of 14-year-old schoolboys have had sex.
Five years later, the statistics showed, the majority would be
sexually active .
The specialists say the issue is not
a simple case of saying yes or no to sex; peer pressure is huge,
along with coercive sex being an unfortunate reality in our
The HIV and Aids pandemic complicates
the picture and a candid talk with a group of 15-year-olds
turned up the information that they all knew girls who were
routinely engaging in oral sex - both because they believed it
was safer, and because they didn't consider it "actual sex".
"Sex is sex" is, however, the adamant
response from Carol Bower, executive director of Resources Aimed
at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (Rapcan), who says
teenagers are making the decision to have sex for three reasons
only - peer pressure, because they're curious, or because they
want to keep a boyfriend (in the case of girls).
There is another, vital level to the
teen sex debate too, according to loveLife chief executive
officer Dr David Harrison, who points out that it is these
youngsters who hold the key to turning around South Africa's HIV
He said that "real opportunity"
rested in the fact that less than one-fifth of 15-year-olds in
South Africa were HIV-positive.
"If they were to grow up largely
uninfected, the overall incidence of HIV would be halved by
2010, and prevalence would steadily decline over the next 15
years," Harrison said.
He listed six "big drivers to early
sex in South Africa":
Sex for money
Lack of communication by parents
The most up-to-date research on the
issue of teen sex in Cape Town, by Professor Alan Flisher, head
of the University of Cape Town's department of psychiatry and
mental health, prompted calls for intervention programmes to
start in primary school, in the light of results that showed
that by 14, nearly 24% of boys and 5.5% of girls had had sex.
By 19, the 2003 research found, the
proportions went up to 72% for boys and 58% for girls.
The pupils canvassed were in Grades 8
and 11, from 39 high schools, and researchers found between
these grades a sharp increase in the number of pupils having
"For each grade, a significantly
higher proportion of males had experienced sexual intercourse,"
they said at that time.
A total of 23.4% reported having had
sex by 14. The figure jumped to 34.5% by age 15, to 45.9% by 16,
53.7% at 17, 58.3% by 18 and nearly 70% by the age of 20.
Among girls, Flisher's research
showed a significant increase in sexual activity between the
ages of 14 and 15. At 14, 5.5% of girls said they had had sex.
Just a year older, that figure was up to 14%. By 18, just under
half the girls had had sex.
South African teens who believe oral
sex is safer are not alone either; a study from the United
States released earlier this month found that one in five US
teenagers said they had engaged in oral sex.
The survey of 580 children with an
average age of 14 found that 20% said they had engaged in oral
sex, compared to 14% who said that they had had sexual
intercourse. In addition, one-third of the 14-year-olds said
they intended to have oral sex within the next six months, and
nearly a quarter planned to have intercourse during the same
While the risk of transmitting
infections, including HIV, is significantly less with oral sex
than with intercourse, there are suspected cases.
Scientists have also documented
several other sexually transmitted diseases that have been
transmitted through oral sex, including herpes, syphilis,
gonorrhea, genital warts, intestinal parasites and Hepatitis A.
Back in South Africa, Bower drew
attention to a much deeper debate around first-time sexual
experience for local youngsters.
She said that in the African context,
girls who postponed sex stayed at school longer, attained higher
levels of education, and generally escaped the teenage pregnancy
scenario and went on to tertiary education.
"You can't stop teenagers from
experimenting - though I'm not saying for a minute that sex is
what they should be doing - but there is a pervasive atmosphere
of sexuality in South Africa.
"And a lot of the time girls start
having sex because it is important
for them to have a boyfriend. It's so
much part of their self-image and status that they'll make a lot
of compromises around starting sexual activity," she said.
Bower does not believe that
adolescents are cognitively in a position to make a decision as
big as the one about having sex before they turn 16.
"They are not really able to think
ahead in terms of the implications of what they are doing."
She believes that talking about sex
and allowing teens to explore their feelings around the issue
could help delay penetrative sex.
And on oral sex, she said teens could
still contract STDs and were making themselves more vulnerable
to the likelihood of moving on to penetrative sex.
"It's not something we can legalise
or legislate, but I want to say to girls, just wait. Delay as
long as possible because that way you're more likely to finish
your education, get a tertiary education and support yourselves
and make decisions differently for your life," Bower urged.
Harrison, who heads one of South
Africa's important Aids youth education agencies, said that in
relation to HIV, the burden teenagers carried was a vital one.
Projections have shown that the new
HIV infection rate among teens could be reduced by between as
much as 20% and 50% over the next five years.
In South Africa, as in most of
sub-Saharan Africa, new infection among young people is what
still fuels the HIV pandemic, and it's driven by patterns of
sexual behaviour skewed towards high risk.
This month, newspapers reported on
teenage binge drinking.
Carry Bekker, programme director at
the Stepping Stones Addiction Centre, said it was alcohol that
they were finding responsible "for a lot of promiscuity, that
can lead to HIV and all sorts of other problems".
"It's alcohol that's leading to kids
waking up in places that they don't even know where they are or
how they got there," she said.
It is parents who appear to be
crucial to the solutions.
He said that young people whose
parents talked to them about the pressure to have sex and the
risks of unprotected sex were more
likely to report having changed their
sexual behaviour as a result of HIV.
"However, more than half of parents
say they hardly ever, or never talk to their teenagers about
dealing with the pressure to have sex, or deciding when they're
ready to have sex," Harrison said.
This article was originally published on page 11 of
The Daily News on April 29, 2005