Frisky or risky? Youth taught early to treat sex with caution
Early intervention helps to reduce HIV, risky sexual behaviour and victimisation
An experiment with grade 6 pupils in the Eastern Cape, aimed at reducing risky adolescent sexual behaviour, has produced “extraordinary” results.
Now the US researchers who worked with more than 1,000 children from Mdantsane and Berlin, near East London, say widespread adoption of their programme would boost children’s wellbeing countrywide.
A team from the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania began work at 18 schools in 2004, presenting 12 one-hour lessons mainly aimed at reducing HIV.
The Let Us Protect Our Future lessons also addressed healthy relationships and aimed to correct misconceptions about rape, such as boys believing that girls were open to sex based on their clothing choices.
The children in the study were followed for 54 months, and researchers led by John Jemmott found the programme was successful in reducing HIV and risky sexual behaviour.
In 2017, Jemmott returned to data from the experiment, and the new analysis found it also reduced perpetration of sexual assault.
When compared to a control group, the children were 3% less likely to report that they forced someone to have sexual intercourse, more than four years after the 12 lessons — which happened before most of the students became sexually active.The intervention was more effective in reducing perpetrator behaviour among boys.
Writing in the journal JAMA Network Open, Jemmott said: “The fact that adolescents who received only 12 hours of intervention in grade 6, when few reported sexual experience, were less likely to report perpetrating and experiencing forced sex long after the intervention is extraordinary.”
Co-author Anne Teitelman said it was “especially important in HIV prevention to address safer sex and relationship issues, given that research has consistently documented that condom use is reduced in relationships with partner violence”.
The trial also helped to reduce victimisation. At several points in the study, participants reported fewer forced sex experiences when compared with the control group. However, this effect was not significant over the entire period.
“It is easier in an intervention to persuade people not to force others to have sex,” said Jemmott. “It is much harder to prevent people from being victimised, as it is often not under their control.”
He said he hoped the programme, delivered in Xhosa and designed with the pupils’ culture in mind, could be used throughout South Africa and other parts of the world.
“Most of the emphasis in terms of intervention for drinking, drugs, and risky sexual behaviour tends to be on high school and college students,” said Jemmott.
“What this study suggests is that perhaps we should begin earlier … with interventions that can have long-lasting effects into secondary school.”