By Noor-Jehan Yoro Badat and Lindi van Rooyen

Children as young as six years are playing sex games, while their teenage peers engage in sexual orgies without protection.

Experts on teenage sexuality also told Saturday Star they are seeing an increase in sexually transmitted infections due to these activitities.

Teddy Bear Clinic's therapeutic manager Shaheda Omar said pre-pubescents (six to nine-year-olds) and pubescents (10 years and older) play nkuku (chicken) and "stuck in the mud".

The former is similar to hide and seek and whoever gets caught first is a victim of fondling and must co-operate in sexual activities. In "stuck in the mud" children play at grabbing each other's genitalia.

"This is not purely social curiosity; it goes beyond that. They do it in secret because they know it is inappropriate, and it is done behind closed doors and behind parents' backs," Omar said.

Teenagers and younger children also play "hide and go and suck" - a form of oral group sex.

Yet another game, "skop die bal", is played by teenagers. This, Omar said, involved kicking a ball. Whoever kicks the furthest has first preference to choose who he wants to play with sexually.

The Teddy Bear Clinic, based in Johannesburg, counsels abused children.

Sexologist and author Tanya Marie Robinson, who also writes for Seventeen magazine and the website Health24, told Saturday Star teenagers were "mostly having unprotected oral sex" and were "unaware of the risk of STIs and HIV".

She is shocked about what is being talked about by teen patients she sees at Intercare Health Centre at Fourways, north of Johannesburg, the Square Medical Centre at Umhlanga, in KwaZulu Natal and the schools she visits to talk about safer sex.

"They are having anal sex. (They say) I am still a virgin, if I have anal sex, (there is) no risk of pregnancy!"

Oral sex, she said, was misunderstood. "Teens partake in oral sex but don't protect themselves because they do not know that they are still at risk of contracting STIs and HIV - a low risk for HIV transmission, but still a risk."

She pointed out that anal sex was the highest risk for HIV transmission.

An increase in gonorrhea infections in recent years, particularly among 15 to 29-year-olds, was a disturbing sign that the prevalence of unsafe sex was increasing, said Robinson.

A survey on youth risk behaviour found that despite 72 percent of pupils receiving sex education, 41 percent engaged in risky sexual behaviour.

The 1st South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey 2002 also states that, nationally, 41,1 percent of those in grades 8 to 11 have had sex. Of those pupils 14,4 percent had their first sexual contact at the age of 13 years or younger; 7,4 percent who had sex had experienced sexually transmitted infections; 14 percent had sex after taking alcohol or drugs; 29 percent practiced consistent condom usage and 16 percent had been pregnant.

What is even more alarming from the survey is the prevalence of abortion for learners aged 13 or under (29,7 percent) was significantly higher than for learners aged 19 or over (9,2 percent).

It was also the first national survey of a "cluster of behaviours conducted since the emergence of a single democratic school system in South Africa".

"The survey is difficult to dismiss," said Shane Norris, assistant director for Birth to Twenty - the largest and longest running birth cohort study of child health and development in Africa - from the University of the Witwatersrand.

"It alerts us to problem areas and issues that cannot be ignored."

Audrey Pettifor, programme director for Adolescent Health at the Reproductive Health Research Unit (RHRU), said "rainbow kissing", risky behaviour involving a form of oral group sex where girls wear different lipsticks and have oral sex with boys, has been reported as taking place among teenagers in the US. It has been profiled on shows like Oprah.

According to Robinson, in the game "the boy who has the most lipstick rings on his penis wins the competition".

Pettifor recalled a documentary that was aired in 1999 by Frontline (a public-affairs documentary series for public television) in America, where an outbreak of syphilis occurred among middle-class white kids in a suburb of Atlanta.

"It was discovered that these kids were engaging in high risk sexual behaviour, such as having multiple sexual partners and engaging in group sex," said Pettifor.

"But the question is why are young people engaging in such behaviours."

She said risk-taking is a part of adolescence.

"Many young people who are sexually active only have one partner, but many young people do have multiple partners. In a national survey conducted in 2001 by loveLife, 21 percent of sexually active 12 to17-year-olds reported having had three or more sexual partners in the past year."