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Young people’s views on why sexual education in Latin America is failing

Hester Phillips

05 April 2022

Focusing on fear, reproduction and heterosexuality is stopping sex education and campaigns to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from working, according to a new study from Chile. 

Fear and a narrow focus on reproduction and heterosexuality stops sex education from being effective, say students in Chile
Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour. Photo credit: iStock/ Hispanolistic

What is the research about? 

Young people’s views of sexuality and sexual risk.  

As part of the first phase of a study to design a digital intervention that promotes sexual health among university students, researchers held a focus group with 20 students (ages 18-25) from Santiago University in Chile. There were 6 males and 14 females, representing different sexualities and gender identities. Sexual health professionals were also interviewed.  

Why is this research important? 

Young people are particularly at risk of STIs, including HIV. Providing good quality sex education (often referred to as ‘comprehensive sexuality education’) and effective HIV/STI prevention campaigns can reduce young people’s risk.  

But understanding whether sex education is working is important. This is the first step to designing programmes and campaigns that actually prevent young people from getting HIV and STIs. 

What did they find out? 

Young people’s views on sex education and sexuality 

Participants reported that sex education only focuses on reproduction, and does not take into account issues such as sexual pleasure. It also centres on fear. 

It is delivered from a heterosexual viewpoint, one that is defined by a male-dominated view of sexuality. 

Homosexuality is only discussed in relation to gay men, who are stigmatised as a ‘risk group’. Other sexual and gender identities, such as lesbians and transgender people, are not considered.  

There is little information about sexuality and sexual health, including the signs and symptoms of different STIs.  

Young people’s views on sexual risk 

Due to a lack of correct information, students have little awareness of what sexual behaviours and practices are risky. Myths surrounding STIs and HIV are common. 

Alcohol and drugs have a direct effect on student’s sexual risk-taking and on getting and giving consent. Students also engage in casual sex and sexual experimentation. 

Condom use is rare among students. This is linked to the widely-held view that condoms decrease sexual pleasure for men. The costs of condoms is also an issue. 

Even when condoms are used they are only used for anal and vaginal sex, not oral sex. There is little awareness about internal condoms, only external ones

STI/HIV prevention campaigns 

Current campaigns fail to inform young people about eroticism, pleasure and sexuality. Instead, sexual practices are stigmatised, punished and over-medicalised. This message of fear adds to the discrimination against people with HIV.  

Prevention campaigns focus on increasing STI/HIV infections, testing, and what to do if you get an STI/HIV. But they do not tell young people how to prevent infections.  

What does this mean for HIV services? 

For HIV and STI prevention campaigns to be effective, they should generate awareness, not fear. They should be informed by young people’s experiences, rather than stereotyped, ‘ideal’ behaviours relating to sex. 

It is important to promote sexuality as something that is natural and is linked to pleasure and relationships, not just reproduction. It is also important to recognise and discuss different sexualities and gender identities.  

There is a need to focus on the risk behaviours that young people engage in, particularly alcohol and drug use. But the focus should be on behaviours, instead of stigmatising ‘risk groups’. 

It is also important to raise young people’s awareness of personal responsibility and consent when having sex. 

Campaigns should include the message that condoms prevents HIV and STIs. It is important to provide information about both internal and external condoms, and show that using condoms can be pleasurable. 

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