‘Dear diary I saw an angel, she looked like heaven on earth': Sex talk and sex education

  • Rob Pattman Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London, 27 Woburn Place, London WC1H OAA, UK
  • Fatuma Chege Department of Educational Foundations, Kenyatta University, PO Box 43844, Nairobi, Kenya, e-mail: fatumasee@wananchi.com


In this paper we highlight and address some of the problems involved in teaching HIV/AIDS education in southern and eastern Africa, and especially in generating open discussion among pupils about sex and sexuality. The paper draws on the findings of a UNICEF-funded study, in which we were involved, as research consultants (2001). The study focused on ‘young people, gender, sexuality and HIV/AIDS education' and was conducted in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Botswana, Rwanda and Kenya, teachers and young people were interviewed about their attitudes towards and experiences of teaching/learning HIV/AIDS education. Young people were also interviewed more generally, in all the countries, about what it was like being a boy or girl of their age. We argue that HIV/AIDS education, as it is commonly taught, as a series of moral injunctions (against pre marital sex) effectively silences young people, and means that sex ‘becomes' naughty when they do talk about it. We propose HIV/AIDS pedagogies, which emulate the practices our researchers adopted when researching the identities and views of boys and girls, especially concerning gender and sexuality. By addressing young people as experts about themselves and in a holistic and non-judgemental way, our interviewees were able to speak about anxieties and pleasures, many of which related to sexuality. This, they had not been able to do with other adults, and even with other children. We focus on the regulation and production of gender identities through the ways boys and girls talked about sex in our interviews and also in their participation in HIV/AIDS classes. In particular we look at how boys and girls ‘performed' gender when discussing sexuality with boys often very loud and girls quiet, with boys presenting themselves as sexual and girls presenting themselves as asexual. We argue for approaches to HIV/AIDS education which challenge gender power relations without alienating boys by problematising them, and without reproducing stereotypes of boys as subjects and girls as objects of sexual desire. We examine the implications of this for single sex and mixed group work and for addressing ‘sexual harassment'. Importantly, we found that both girls and boys described people of the opposite sex and heterosexual desire very differently in mixed-sex group interviews and in the diaries they kept. Rather than addressing girls and boys as unitary gendered subjects, we argue for approaches in HIV/AIDS education, which are responsive to the different and contradictory ways boys and girls present themselves and talk about sexual desire and the opposite sex in different contexts.

Keywords: gender, identity, Africa, AIDS, young

African Journal of AIDS Research 2003, 2(2): 103–112

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445