Review of “Let’s Talk About Sex”

Reviewed by Associate Editor Chloe Dennison

In her paper “Let’s Talk About Sex: the Acquisition of Sexual Health Education Among Urban
Youth in Cameroon,” Tiani Vessah analyzes the cultural and personal influences that shape the
development of sexual education in adolescents living in Cameroon. Vessah specifically focused
her research on the economic capital of Cameroon, Douala, and selected forty-one individuals
(aged 18 to 25) to interview, ultimately applying her conclusions to the larger country and region.
Her selection of Douala as the pool for interviewees is particularly significant: as the most
heavily urban city in the nation, it is immensely diverse, supporting broadly varied ethnic and
socioeconomic groups. The respondents were 68.29 percent male and 31.71 percent female,
leading to a slightly skewed result in the research (as males were less likely to receive
information on pregnancy). However, this discrepancy was to be expected, as females were less
likely to be so forthcoming in discussing sexuality (as they were taught to be discreet).
Vessah breaks down the sources of sexual education for youths into three distinct categories:
parent-to-child communication, friends and teachers, and technology. In the author’s view, the
parent-to-child communication can be the most influential on the sexual education received by
the adolescent, as it shapes one’s attitude about sex from an early age. The natural growth
approach (as theorized by Annette Lareau) is most prevalent in households, wherein parents
believe that their children will learn about sex as they grow up (and thus no direct
communication on sexual activity is necessary). Some parents utilize passive communication,
where they bestow their children with gifts suggestive of certain behaviors (such as condoms
implying the utilization of safe sex methods), but still refuse any to participate in any form of
direct communication.

Among friends, adolescents communicate in Camfranglais, a slang language that solves the
problem of discomfort of speaking outright. Sexual health is primarily discussed down strict
gender lines, and stereotypical gender norms persist in these conversations (as males try to
establish their sexual behavior as being overtly masculine or “macho,” for example). However,
youths also reach out to les grands frères du quartier (older brothers) for advice. These
individuals are often thought of as the “cool kids on the block,” as they are older and more
experienced. Male youths regularly reach out to these les grands frères du quartier for
information on more advanced topics such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted
diseases.

Youths in Cameroon also rely on their teachers to provide them with information on sexual
health, though the accuracy and depth of this education widely varies. In private Catholic
schools, the sexual health curriculum is carefully planned, and is one of the most extensive ones
offered. Safe sex (and the usage of condoms and other forms of birth control) is heavily
promoted, as well as healthy communication with one’s sexual partner. All lessons connect back
to Biblical teachings, but remain conscientious of the context of the student’s lives outside of the
school environment. In contrast, public schools regularly do not have any structured sexual
health curriculum. Rather, teachers often give impromptu lessons on sexuality, which lead to
inaccurate or anecdotal evidence being spread.

Finally, Vessah argues that technology plays a major role in the sexual health education of youths
in Cameroon. As adolescents are increasingly exposed to technology (especially in comparison
to older generations), the media they consume often dictates what information they receive.
Songs and television shows often promote promiscuity and more open sexual behavior.
Advertisements for condoms inform adolescents on safe sex behaviors. Social media (among
other online platforms) can promote the spread and consumption of pornography, which further
dictates attitudes towards sexual activity.

Ultimately, Vessah concludes that the key to increased prevalence of accurate information on
sexual health is open communication. Starting at an early age (before sexual activity begins),
parents ought to be more open in discussing sexual health with their children, ensuring that
reliable information is distributed. In Vessah’s view, as sexual health education models the future
sexual behavior of individuals (and thus is incredibly important), early and accurate education
can lead to decreased sexual risks and consequences (such as unplanned pregnancies and
sexually transmitted diseases).

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