The first time a boy asked me to have sex, I was five years old. We were playing hide and seek, and the two of us ran off to hide in a bush. We were so excited because we had found this spot, that we thought was so hidden, we wouldn’t be found.
But it turned out my friend, who was six years old, was getting a few ideas from the fact that the place was so hidden, and took the opportunity to tell me that it was a good spot to “dinya” each other. I didn’t know what the word meant, so I asked him what it meant. He told me that it was an act that involved his “thing touching my thing”. We’d grown up referring to our vaginas and penises as things, so I then understood what he meant.
It still wasn’t clear to me though, so I asked him if that meant that we’d have to remove our under wear, and he answered that it did. Of course I’d been taught that removing my under wear in public was “bad manners”, so I told him I wouldn’t do it, because it sounded like bad manners.
Sometime back I narrated this incident to a friend of mine who is about 15 years older than me. I was explaining to her how most children are naturally curious about sex, and I used my experience at the age of five to demonstrate that contrary to popular belief, TV and the internet are not necessarily the main drivers of sexual curiosity among children.
I explained to her that when I was five, we had just about a TV set for every two homes in my neighbourhood. We had only one TV station, which only started its operations at 4PM, and by 7PM it was boring documentaries until midnight when the station closed until the next day.
She completely agreed with me, and to my surprise shared that she had her first penetrative sexual experience at the age of 9, with a boy more or less her age. She made it clear that she wasn’t raped. Sex between 9 year olds at a time when TVs were barely existent, and discussions on sex and condoms were to a large extent also non-existent, would come as a surprise to many.
However, TV and the internet are certainly not the only things blamed for children’s curiosity and engagement in sexual activity. Religion has taught us to attribute children’s sexual activity to the devil. But as a friend of mine shared with me, even religious children and teenagers can be sexually active.
This friend shared how she met her first boyfriend at Christmas Bible Camp, at the age of 16 years. Once they got back from camp and back to school, they wrote letters, often quoting scripture to encourage each other, as they longed to see each other during the next holiday season.
During the April holidays, they would visit each other regularly, with Bible study as a key agenda. My friend jokes about how they would carry the small Bibles given to them at Bible Camp, although she wishes they had carried condoms instead. Reason being, she got pregnant and had to procure an abortion, making her 16th year the worst of her life.
At 16 she dealt with pregnancy, breaking up with her first love, procuring an abortion, keeping it a secret, living with the guilt of “murder” as abortion was and is constantly framed in religious circles, and overcoming the depression and suicidal tendencies that came with that.
I consider myself fairly lucky not to have had my first experience of sexual intercourse at the age of 5, 9 or 16, seeing how ill-prepared young people often are when it comes to sexual matters. But even though I had my first experience in my early 20’s, I still wasn’t better prepared. I found myself in a relationship, having unprotected sex with a partner whose HIV status I didn’t know.
When I think of my experience, I get horrified at the danger I put myself in. But the more I listen to other people’s childhood, teenage and early adulthood sexual experiences, the more I realize just how unprepared most, if not all of us were. But who would blame us if all the sex ed. we got was “say no to sex”, because “sex is sin”, and you therefore have to “wait until marriage”?
Who would blame us for having unprotected sex, when sex ed. was so far removed from our realities, and looked something like this? And we were left wondering where and how a condom should be worn?
The sad thing is that, even though many of us went through sex ed. that didn’t work, and our first sexual experiences either left us traumatized or thanking God for all the things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t, we still don’t seem to have learnt much from it.
We are still burying our heads in the sand, staging uproars every time a sex education initiative that could address the realities of young people’s sexual experiences is tabled for discussion or consideration. We still believe in sex ed. that advocates for abstinence, threatens children with hell and unrealistically expects young people to wait until marriage, even though it didn’t work for us.
I must confess that I am not any different, as I have only been unlearning and slowly coming out of burying my head when it comes to young people’s sexuality. One of the moments I regret most is during my early days after university when I worked for a HIV education project for young people. I remember a 10 year old boy, one day after we had conducted a session on HIV and AIDS, pleading with us, “Please teach us to use condoms. We just want to know. We promise not to use them.”
His plea to be taught how to use condoms was ignored, but it haunted me for more than 10 years, leading me to write a 100 page dissertation on the topic of children’s sexuality. I still wish I had responded differently, but I hope that my dissertation will help someone working with children to approach children’s sexuality differently.