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close this bookAdolescent Sexuality and the HIV Epidemic (UNDP, 1999, 24 p.)
close this folder1. INTRODUCTION
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentA patterned vulnerability
View the documentImages of 'adolescence'

Images of 'adolescence'

One of the most important reasons why young people are denied adequate access to information, sexual health services and protective resources such as condoms, derives from the stereotypical and often contradictory ways in which they are viewed. It is popularly believed that all young people are risk-taking pleasure seekers who live only for the present. Such views tend to be reinforced by the uncritical use of the term adolescent (with its connotations of 'storm and stress') in the specialist psychological and public health literatures. This term tends not only to homogenise and pathologise our understanding of young people and their needs, it encourages us to view young people as possessing a series of 'deficits' (in knowledge, attitudes and skills) which need to be remedied by adults and the interventions they make (Aggleton & Warwick, 1997).

Hoffman & Futterman (1996) have commented that adults often hold ambivalent attitudes towards young people, viewing them simultaneously as '... small adults and as immature inexperienced and untrustworthy children' (ibid, p.236). Many adults also have difficulty acknowledging adolescents as sexual beings, and therefore adolescent sexuality is viewed as something which must be controlled and restrained. These stereotypes have also informed much HIV-related research and practice with young people. Warwick and Aggleton (1990), for example, have described the central images to be found in the literature on young people and AIDS. These include the 'unknowledgeable or ill informed adolescent', the 'high-risk adolescent', the 'adolescent who is unduly conforming to peer pressures', and the 'tragic but innocent adolescent' who inadvertently becomes infected by HIV.

These powerful images and assumptions influence policy and practice in relation to young people and their sexual health. Some adults believe that young people are of their nature sexually promiscuous and that giving them information about sex will make young people more sexually active (Friedman, 1993). As a result, sex education in schools either does not take place or promotes only certain risk reduction measures (most usually abstinence). Yet there is now clear evidence that well-designed programs of sex education, which include messages about safer sex as well as those about abstinence, may delay the onset of sexual activity, and reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase contraceptive use among those who are already sexually active (Grunseit et al, 1997; Grunseit, 1997).

While formal health education programs have been influenced by stereotypical attitudes about young people's sexuality, parents and families across a wide variety of cultures have also sought to deny young people information about sex and reproduction. In countries as different as India and Nicaragua, parents and children report that they do not talk to each other about sex (George & Jaswal, 1995; Zeiaya et al, 1997). Often parents and family members do this in the belief that they are 'protecting ' young people from information which they believe may lead to sexual experimentation. However, evidence suggests that young people who openly communicate about sexual matters with their parents, especially mothers, are less likely to be sexually active or (if girls) become pregnant before marriage (Gupta, Weiss and Mane, 1996).

While young people have been commonly stereotyped as uniformly hedonistic and irresponsible, they are in fact a remarkably heterogeneous group. Their experiences vary widely according to cultural background, gender, sexuality and socio-economic status among other variables. While some young people may take risks, the majority are at least as responsible as their parents, and some may be even more so. Moreover, it is important to recognise that in many developing countries, the onset of pubertv signals greater economic and family responsibility rather than increased pleasure-seeking and risk taking (Aggleton & Rivers, 1998). That said, there are a number of structural as well as individual factors which may heighten young people's vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.