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Too shy to talk about the birds and the bees

March 13th, 2006

Dr Petra

According to some news reports, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted discussing sex with his children made him feel ‘nervous’.

In an interview for MTV Base, Mr Blair told an audience of African teenagers that it was a parent’s responsibility to teach their children about sex. The Observer quoted Mr Blair saying parents should ‘counter any ignorance about the basic facts of life and explain how infections like HIV were transmitted’.

Mr Blair’s take on sex seemed faintly negative – a kind of grudging ‘well it’s embarrassing but as a parent you just have to get on with it’ approach. Rather than a more sex positive view around encouraging your child to feel more confident, secure and able to negotiate safer sex when they were ready for it.

Whilst I’m sure Mr Blair’s words were well meant, I found them slightly insensitive to an African audience where it is frequently taboo for parents and children to discuss sex. Parents find discussing sex topics embarrassing, or worry they may lead their children to experiment if sex or relationships are discussed. Children are often unable or unwilling to ask for advice, since a parent may well assume a question asking about sex is an indicator of a young person’s sexual activity – which could lead to punishment or blame.

It would be wrong to stereotype all African parents as unable to discuss sex with young people, but for those who lack access to education, information and healthcare providing such advice is difficult. I also found this coverage uncomfortable since it somehow implied African parents weren’t doing their bit around HIV prevention – an unhelpful and frequently unrealistic stereotype.

In an ideal world all parents would have received adequate sex education when they were at school, along with life skills to share with their children or teenagers. Schools would provide accurate and comprehensive sex education for all, with parents providing additional support within the home.

However we know in the UK this does not happen – our sex education is patchy within schools, and our provision of sexual health services are massively underfunded and overstretched. So it is somewhat surprising Mr Blair feels he can tell African parents and young people about sex education. Many African parents may look to the UK – our teen pregnancy and STI rates, increased sexual culture and lack of respect for parents – and wonder what on earth Mr Blair is talking about.

Until we provide countries with adequate aid, deal with poverty, increase education and specifically provide evidence based sex advice to all generations (not to mention condom provision and contraception information) problems around teen conception, rising STIs and sexual anxieties will remain.

It’s not just the job of parents to talk to their children about sex. It’s the job of the state to provide accurate sex education within schools, and quality sexual health services alongside them. Mr Blair is right to speak out about sex education, but perhaps a little more cultural sensitivity wouldn’t go amiss.

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