Should a university be a place where a young person can develop sexual competence, in preparation for a sexually fulfilling adulthood, or should university authorities try to limit opportunities for sexual exploration in line with many parental expectations?
As a psychologist working in an HIV programme at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, I have counselled many students about sex over the years. Many of these students lack confidence, comfort and literacy around sex that empowers rather than embarrasses them.
Despite living in a country where an early sexual debut is not unusual, where sexual assault and rape are endemic, and where surveys show university students are having sex and sometimes contracting HIV, we seem to think that if we control, manage and inhibit the sexuality of young people, we will somehow keep them from harm until that magical day when they meet their similarly abstinent and “pure” life partner, releasing them into each other’s arms for a life of wonderful, safe, healthy and faithful sex.
This ambivalence about young people’s sexuality is evident in the response of the state. Yes, we have, on paper at least, an excellent Life Orientation programme in schools.
But while there are pockets of excellence and dedication, often the work is done by teachers who are not well motivated or trained, who themselves struggle with their own relationships and sexuality, and who are often quite conservative about sexual norms and different sexual orientations.
This awkwardness about youth sexuality carries over into many university spaces and programmes where different paradigms co-exist, each with its own challenges and possibilities.
Many campus health programmes, not surprisingly, adopt a public health approach: seeing students as rational actors who, if given the correct health information and warnings about disease, HIV and pregnancy, will simply choose not to have sex, or if they must, will use condoms and contraceptives all the time.
While students may be given tests and access to contraception, and sometimes even the morning after pill, a sense of a finger wagging goes along with these technologies.
Yet the language of disease, risk and infection runs counter to the experience of desire, pleasure, transgression and power, which drives many sexual encounters.
The public health approach often fails to factor in these elements – less amenable to rational thinking – and glosses over the relationality of sex; meaning that we make decisions, some conscious, some less so, based on the dynamics of the moment and the person we are with.
Another paradigm is the idea that the university “stands in” for the parents of the student, setting boundaries and limits to sexual expression, perhaps even invoking the language of morality, to define the kind of sexual citizen the student is expected to be: preferably abstinent, hopefully faithful and definitely heterosexual.
Evidence for this: constrictions on sexual expression in residences, attitudes towards pregnancy and abortion, the privilege given to religious voices on some campuses, and the use of parental titles in residences (house mothers and fathers).
Paradoxically, the free availability of alcohol and inadequate approaches to understanding and managing drug use, complicate this picture, placing more pressure on universities to control sex and sexual expression, and act as parent figures.
The most hopeful approach, in my view, is the sexual competence one developed by British sociologist, Julia Hirst.
Sexual competence means being able to negotiate sex that is safe (both in terms of disease and in terms of the physical space it occurs in) and mutual, by people with a positive sense of their sexual selves and identities.
It does not assume heterosexuality or privilege vaginal penetration, recognising that we all need a repertoire of ways to give and receive pleasure.
To be sexually competent means having a confident and fluent language for sex; it values personal feelings of control in decision making. It can also mean being fully comfortable in saying no to sex, not from a position of fear and shame, but from a place of recognition of what one really wants.
In my years as a psychologist, I have worked with many adults who have unhappy and complicated sex lives. Young people need not follow this path.
While a university cannot be all things to all people, it can promote the idea that we all have a right to great sex which is equal and not exploitative, which is healthy and mutually enjoyable.
To achieve this, universities need to get real and be open to new conversations with and about their students’ sexual cultures, identities and practices.
Pierre Brouard, director of the Centre for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, is a clinical psychologist interested in sexualities, gender, human rights, and finding just the right word to grace a sentence, convey empathy or complete a crossword.
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