The question of one's sexuality transcends religious, racial, and cultural differences. Irrespective of skin colour, gender, gods worshipped, or how different cultures portray it, people everywhere explore their sexuality. Especially during adolescence, in a bid to discover and embrace who they truly are, questions such as "what is sex?" and "who am I as a sexual being?" plague the minds of young women and men as they struggle through the years between childhood and adulthood.
Across the world, adolescent sexuality is an important social and medical topic. Statistics show that most boys and girls become sexually active at around the age of fifteen or earlier.1 Many interpretations of adolescent sexuality can be examined in the way that different cultures adopt the practices of abstinence and contraception.
ADOLESCENT SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) examined sexual trends among fifteen-year-old students from thirty-five countries. The study showed that while the percentage of boys who engaged in sexual intercourse was often higher than that of girls, there were emerging trends indicating that as many or more girls than boys were sexually active when they turned fifteen.2 However, while this changing trend was registered, the age at which most boys first had intercourse remained younger than that of girls, showing that gender can influence adolescent sexuality. The study also indicated that the median age of first intercourse in most countries was sixteen to nineteen years for girls, and seventeen to nineteen years for boys. In Chad girls have their first sexual intercourse at 15.9 years, and boys at 18.8. Sub-Saharan Africa presented similar statistics that contradicted those gathered by WHO in which all countries recorded girls as becoming sexually involved at the same age or at an older age than boys.
How could this be? In parts of Africa, the prevalence of rape and the custom of early marriage regulate sexual activity. In South Africa, for instance, 116 in every one hundred thousand women have reported being raped; and in the rest of Africa, 42 per cent of women between fifteen and twenty-four years of age were married before they turned eighteen, often to men who are up to fifteen years their senior.3
In examining adolescent sexuality and sexual behaviour, many cultures differ on the practices of abstinence and contraception.
ABSTINENCE The practice of abstinence is subject to cultural, social, and religious differences, and its relevance and effectiveness are always in question. However, whatever its cultural variation, abstinence plays a major role in the regulation of adolescent sexual behaviour.
In some developed countries, abstinence is characterized by purity rings and chastity vows aimed at preventing sexual intercourse prior to marriage, while in some developing countries abstinence is enforced through female genital mutilation and other traditional practices, which are detrimental to the sexual development of adolescents.
The 2008 Youth Reproductive and Sexual Health report by the United States Agency for International Development4 noted that the abstinence rate for women in Africa varied between 34 per cent in Congo and 96 per cent in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Senegal, while in Armenia and Viet Nam it was 100 per cent. In Eritrea, before the onset of puberty, 39 per cent of girls had gone through infibulation,5 a particular method of genital mutilation considered to promote abstinence of intercourse due to painful consequences.
Despite the high rates of abstinence in Africa, the HIV/AIDS epidemic remains rampant, forcing one to consider whether abstinence could be a practical long-term solution against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. A study in the United States found that adolescents who took abstinence pledges would delay sexual intercourse for less than two years but, upon becoming sexually active, they were one-third less likely to use contraception than their non-abstaining counterparts.6
Although cultures within both developed and developing countries approach abstinence differently, it appears that neither female genital mutilation nor abstinence vows play a role in preventing the untimely initiation of sexual activity; instead, they seem to delay unhealthy sexual decisions rather than prevent them.
CONTRACEPTION Contraceptive use is directly affected by sex education, the availability of contraception, its cost, and cultural practices.
A WHO study found that more than 70 per cent of sexually active adolescents in thirty-five countries used condoms.7 In most cases, the use of condoms by boys surpassed that of girls. The fact that boys were more likely to use condoms could be indicative of the belief in most cultures that girls were expected to remain chaste, while boys were not, and were thus better informed than their female counterparts.
However, another study uncovered an alternate reality in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In many cases, less than 25 per cent of youth admitted to using modern forms of contraception. Contraceptive use was found to be highest among older women with higher levels of education and living in urbanized areas.8 Thus, during adolescence, contraceptive use was low and further influenced by social class and education levels.
As adolescents fight internal battles when they come to embrace their sexual identities, they are also forced to grapple with the influence of peers, family, cultural beliefs, and the media. Despite the differences in their experiences and the obstacles they face, all adolescents eventually come to an understanding of who they are as sexual beings. Adolescent sexuality is, and will continue to be, a topic of debate and interest. Regardless of a particular country or culture, similarities in the views, intentions, and practices regarding adolescent sexuality can be found around the world. Clearly, adolescent sexuality is a universal issue.
Notes 1 A. Glasier, A. Metin Gülmezoglu, G. P. Schmid, C. Garcia Moreno, and P. F.A. Van Look, "Sexual and reproductive health: a matter of life and death," The Lancet 368, no.9547 (2006):1595-1607. 2 WHO/Europe, Young people's health in context: Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: International report from the 2001/2002 survey, C. Curry, C. Roberts, A. Morgan, R. Smith, W. Settertobulte, O. Samdal, and V. Barnekow Rasmussen, eds. (Denmark: WHO, 2004). 3 UNICEF, Early Marriage: A Harmful Traditional Practice (New York: UNICEF, 2005). 4 DHS Comparative Reports (USAID), Youth Reproductive and Sexual Health, by S. Khan and V. Mishra, (Calverton, USA: Macro International, Inc., No. 19, 2008). 5 UNICEF, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (New York: UNICEF, 2005). 6 P. S. Bearman and H. Brückner, "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse," American Journal of Sociology 106 (2001): 859-912; and H. Bruckner and P. S. Bearman, "After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges," Journal of Adolescent Health 36 (2005): 271-278. 7 See note 2 above.