African Journal of AIDS Research

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Experiences and conceptualizations of sexual debut from the narratives of South African men and women in the context of HIV/AIDS

Erin Stern, Diane Cooper


Given the pivotal role of first sex in the development of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) practices, there is a need for more contextualised and nuanced understandings of young people’s early sexual debut experiences. This study used sexual history narratives to investigate how South African men and women experience and attribute meaning to their sexual debut, and their SRH practices. In light of the gendered disparities among young people’s SRH awareness and risk, differences between men and women’s narratives of sexual debut were assessed. Fifty sexual history interviews were conducted with men and 25 sexual history interviews with women, with participants purposively sampled from three age categories, a range of cultural and racial backgrounds and urban and rural sites across five provinces. Narrative interviews were designed to elicit stories around participants’ early knowledge of sex and sexual experimentation, their range of sexual relationships and SRH practices. The data were analysed using a thematic approach. Participants generally reflected on their early sexual experiences with feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. While men appeared to hold greater decision-making power than women at sexual debut, descriptions of men’s early sexual experiences were often characterised by respect, intimacy and vulnerability. Many men attributed the timing of their sexual debut to peer pressure, which typically generated higher social status and rarely included consideration of the need to practice safer sex. Several women felt pressured by their partner to sexually debut, which could have informed their perceptions of men being sexually controlling and aggressive. The study demonstrates the value of a narrative approach for generating insights on young people’s sexual debut experiences and SRH practices, and the underlying gendered norms and expectations that shape these. The findings indicate the need for gender transformative HIV interventions to take into the diversity of young people’s SRH needs and social realities.

Keywords: gender norms, HIV/AIDS, narratives, sexual debut, South Africa

African Journal of AIDS Research 2014, 13(2): 121–131
AJOL African Journals Online