Prof Dr Low Wah Yun says youth sexuality is still a sensitive subject, not just in Asian countries but in all cultures.
Once, it was puppy love. Today, being adolescent is no longer the age of innocence. Boys and girls as young as 12 have gone more than just ogle at each other, writes NURRIS ISHAK.
AT a time when many girls are still thinking that boys are pests, 12-year-old Ani (not her real name) was already sneaking off to meet her 15-year-old boyfriend.
But Ani’s puppy love took a different twist when she became pregnant.
At an age when her friends were looking forward to secondary school, Ani was breast-feeding her baby boy.
Adolescence, defined as between 10 and 19 years old, is no longer the age of innocence.
When once boys were “icky” and girls “yucky”, upon reaching puberty, the opposite sex suddenly becomes objects of curiosity.
This is the time when the hormones begin to kick in, and ogling at the opposite sex becomes an exciting pastime, says University of Malaya psychologist Prof Dr Low Wah Yun.
“Girls start having crushes on adults, like a teacher or a parent’s friend. For boys, this is the time when they have stronger sexual impulses and fantasies,” she said.
It is ironic that adolescents and youths — the latter defined as those between the ages of 15 and 24 — are the least informed on the importance of sexual health at an age when they are the most curious about sex.
A 2004 national survey on Malaysian youths shows that two out of five had their first date between the ages of 13 and 15.
Conducted by the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN), the survey also revealed that four out of five started holding hands, kissing and petting between the ages of 13 and 18.
Due to a widening age gap between puberty and marriage, there will be a higher prevalence of adolescents having premarital sex. Out of 13,971 survey respondents who have had sex, 38.2 per cent had it before the age of 20.
The group is most likely to have multiple sexual and casual partners, have unprotected sex, become pregnant accidentally and contract sexually-transmitted disease.
Young males tend to lose their virginity out of curiosity or for the sake of sexual pleasure, while young women associate it with love or a long-term relationship.
Adolescents living with single parents have a significantly higher rate of having sexual intercourse than those living with both biological parents, as found in another study done in Negri Sembilan.
“Their risky behaviour is caused by the lack of sexual and reproductive health information.
“They are not taught the necessary skills in negotiating sexual relationships and how to deal with peer pressure,” says Dr Low, who presented her findings at the National Population Conference: Youth and the Changing Demographics on Monday.
In her paper entitled Youth Sexuality: A Psycho-Social Perspective, she noted that youths do not get proper access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.
And the facts tell a grim story. Each year, one in 20 adolescents globally would contract sexually transmitted infection.
Every day, over 7,000 youths aged between 10 and 24 are infected with HIV.
Statistics by the World Health Organisation show that 4.4 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortions each year, and 60,000 die due to complications of an early pregnancy and childbirth-related problems.
Still, around the world, policy makers, community members, parents and teachers shy away from discussing sex and reproductive health with teenagers.
Most of the time, the youths have to resort to getting their information from friends, the Internet or magazines, which may provide sensational and inaccurate information.
The LPPKN survey found that one out of two adolescents aged 14 to 15 have read pornographic materials.
Forty-four per cent have watched pornographic images, some having done so at the age of nine.
“Education programmes on adolescent sexual health are rather scanty.
“Although a family health education programme is endorsed by the Education Ministry, teachers are seldom equipped and are uncomfortable in teaching the subject,” says Dr Low.
In Malaysia, sexuality is a taboo subject which parents are least likely to discuss with their children.
The LPPKN survey revealed that parents would rather talk to their children about education and spending habits, and most would skip the subject of boyfriends and girlfriends altogether.
Studies have revealed that the society is more tolerant towards boys losing their virginity before marriage.
The society’s gender-biasness towards premarital sex leaves the adolescent females to be more vulnerable to the negative consequences of premarital sex.
“Youth sexuality is still a sensitive subject, not just in Asian countries but in all cultures,” said Dr Low.
“Programmes that offer sexual and reproductive health services to youths can expect to encounter some resistance from the community.
“Sex education is not ‘training for promiscuity’, it aims to increase the individual’s responsibility in a normal healthy sexual relationship.
“In countries which have sex education, the youths tend to delay their initiation into sex. When they actually have sex, more of them took the necessary precautions.”
When Dr Low and her colleagues did a study on the sexual activities of Malaysian adolescents, they found that only 37 per cent of sexually active teenagers use any form of birth control.
“One-third of those who don’t use any form of contraceptive say they didn’t expect to have sex, and another third say that sex wasn’t as much fun with it, or that they find it difficult to use.
“It could also be because they are scared their families would find out,” says Dr Low.
Turning a blind eye towards sexuality among adolescents is no longer an option. With things going the way it is, sexual education is a vital necessity.
“Both young women and men need sexual education. They need to be taught issues relating to sexuality such as contraception, healthy and responsible relationship, marriage.
“They need to be educated on sexual orientation, reproduction, abstinence and gender roles as well as other sexual health-related issues. Sexually active adolescents need to understand the risks involved.”
In this case, ignorance is not bliss.
New Straits Times