Published: Sunday April 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 14, 2014 MYT 1:12:07 PM

Let's talk about sex and youths

If youths are exposed to the real consequences of their sexuality, it may help them make better decisions. However, parents may not be talking to their children enough about this sensitive subject.

The events in Parliament I wrote about a fortnight ago have led me to investigate the issue being debated then – that of underage sex in Malaysia.

The verbal answer given in Parliament noted that there were 1,550 cases of statutory rape in 2012. To address this, the government outlined several programmes, including setting up a new police department specifically for crimes against children, and counselling services to be given at schools, hospitals and police stations.

Two things must be noted. Firstly, the number of reported statutory rape cases must be a low estimate of how many teenage Malaysians are sexually active; and secondly, almost all the steps outlined by the government are actions to be taken after the fact.

The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs (who spoke in Parliament) did note that preventive strategies could be taken, by stating that parents had a strong role to play. Unfortunately, he was silent on what that strong role actually should be.

Exactly how many young Malaysians are sexually active? The number is difficult to pinpoint. Depending on which study you read, it can be anywhere from 1% to 5% of adolescents. One study of girls in a secondary school in Kuala Lumpur established the number to be as high as 30%.

I believe most Malaysian parents do try to make the point from a moral and religious standpoint that sex before marriage is wrong. This is effective in some ways, but teenagers are discovering much of the world for the first time, and with it a multitude of opinions. Whose they choose to accept is crucial.

A study from Universiti Putra Malaysia showed that even though more than 90% of Malaysian girls said they found it easy talking to their mothers, almost half never discussed sex with them. Another study on students in Kelantan found that more than 60% of students got their information about sex from friends, and a similar proportion got it from the mass media. Only 17% got information from teachers and 6.5% learned about it from their parents.

However, just because a parent talks to a teenager about sex, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the child will be celibate. One study from Singapore surprisingly concluded that having a mother as a confidant did not increase or decrease the likelihood of being sexually active.

What made them more likely to be sexual seemed to have gender-specific causes. For boys, the factors were experience in watching pornography, peer pressure from sexually active friends, being a member of a gang, and a perception that having sex before marriage was OK. This is consistent with the idea that if a boy doesn’t have sexual experience, he is made to feel less of a man, in particular by his peers.

Meanwhile for girls, the sad truth is that a girl who has a history of sexual abuse is about seven times more likely to be sexually active as a teenager. The other strong factors were the belief that sex before marriage was acceptable and also peer pressure (although the paper doesn’t make it clear if it’s pressure from boys interested in them or from other girls).

What about factors that make an adolescent LESS likely to be sexually active? Interestingly, it was whether they had knowledge of somebody – real or fictional – who was HIV positive or infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

Obviously, we must be careful to not confuse correlation with causation. It is unlikely that forcing schoolchildren to watch STD-education videos would immediately make them celibate, but it is believable that students who have a good knowledge of sexual relationships would also understand STDs. In fact, perhaps the key is that when teenagers understand the consequences of underaged sex, they make better choices as a result of it.

In the US, the MTV reality show 16 And Pregnant features teenagers trying to deal with that situation. Unsurprisingly, the show has been criticised for glamourising teenage pregnancy and motherhood.

However, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US that looked at TV ratings by geographical area (and correlated it to Internet activity) has concluded that viewing 16 And Pregnant led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion. And ultimately, it led to a 5.7% reduction in teen births in the 18 months following the show’s introduction.

Although it is heartening that exposure to the realities of pregnancy leads to safer sex, the more astute of you will realise that an increase in contraceptive usage does not mean a decrease in sexual activity.

A more telling piece of research comes from the Journal Of Sexuality And Culture. In it, researchers find that how much a father interacts with his daughter significantly affects how a show like 16 And Pregnant impacts the child. Sexual activity went up if fathers did not communicate with them about sex while growing up, but it went down for those who did.

To me, this is a piece of research that demonstrates the obvious: what is more important than the messages a child is receiving is whether they have a filter of “common sense” instilled by the parents.

Surprisingly, the research also found that it was the father-daughter interaction that made a big difference, not the mother-daughter bond.

What can we take away from all this? That parents do have a strong role to play in shaping their children’s attitude towards sex. That exposure to and understanding of the real consequences can affect behaviour. And that a parent’s role is less to scare a child about what is bad, but more to teach them how to make decisions that are good.

None of this was presented in Parliament. Unfortunately, it isn’t a suitable venue for nuanced debate, which means the politicians on the floor try to strip everything into black and white.

But perhaps instead of leaving it at “parents have a role”, it may be more helpful for them to help us read between the lines.

  • Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Lifestyle, Family, Sex, pregnancy, HIV, AIDS, rape

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