Teen sex stats shock
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 society today.
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 pandemic.
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":
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 sex.
"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 period.
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 H
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.