by Henrylito D. Tacio
HER classmates were caught unaware. She passed them and went straight to the national highway – walking as if she was under the influence of drugs. Everyone screamed when a speeding vehicle came to her way. It was good that the driver was able to stop before he hit her.
At the school principal’s office, she was interrogated. “I am three months pregnant,” said the 17-year-old high school student. The principal was further stunned when he found out that the father was much younger — only 14 years old.
In Western countries like the United States, teen pregnancy may not surprise anyone at all. But in a developing country like the Philippines, it may come as a shock — particularly among priests and religious leaders. “From time to time, we always emphasized that pre-marital sex is morally wrong!” said a Catholic priest.
Are Filipino youngsters these days more sexually active than those in the recent past? To find out, the Health Action Information Network (HAIN) with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) conducted a survey in seven regions across the country. There were Camarines Norte in the Bicol region; Iloilo and Guimaras in Western Visayas; the cities of Dumaguete and Cebu in Central Visayas; Zamboanga City in Western Mindanao; Davao City and Sarangani in Southern Mindanao; Maguindanao in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARRM); and the cities of Quezon, Manila, and Pasay in the National Capital Region.
The survey – with 4,111 youth respondents — found out that the average age at which first sexual intercourse is experience is 15.7 years old. Males experienced earlier sexual initiation than females (15.5 years vs. 16.7 years). On the average, sexually active adolescents have 3.5 sexual partners.
The sexual experience of the youth ranges from oral sex to penile-vaginal intercourse and anal sex. Penile-vaginal sex comprises of the majority of these sexual experiences. Of those who have been sexually active, 49 percent have engaged in oral sex (either as recipient or giver). Anal sex was experienced by almost a quarter of those who are sexually active. Sex with the same gender was experienced by 23 percent of all sexually active respondents.
“The major cities of Quezon, Manila, Cebu and Davao have higher percentages of sexually active youth (26 to 22 percent,” said the HAIN report. “Less than 10 percent of youth in Iloilo City and Guimaras have engaged in sex.”
Another study, published in the ‘International Family Planning Perspectives,’ showed that the proportion of younger men who have had intercourse before their 17th birthday in Jamaica (76%), the United States (64%) and Brazil (63%) is about 10 times the level reported in the Philippines (7%).
But why do these teenagers engaged in sex early in life? Curiosity was the main reason cited why they lost their virginity. Love was the second reason while aroused feelings came third. Five percent of the respondents said they were forced to have sex the first time while three percent did it in exchange for food and/or money.
Although not too many Filipino youngsters admitted it, experts consider peer pressure as one of the reasons why female teenagers are engaged in sex early in life. This is especially common among girls who feel unpopular among their peers. “For many young adolescents, having a steady boyfriend is vital to their self-esteem,” explains Dr Marita McCabe, professor of psychology at Deakin University’s Toorak campus in Melbourne. “They feel they must also have sex with their boyfriends to be accepted by their peer group. They are under enormous pressure to conform.”
The HAIN survey found that peer pressure is stronger among males. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my friends if I was still a virgin,” said 18-year-old Mark, who had his first sexual experience when he was 15. “I probably couldn’t say anything about sex if I had not experienced it myself.”
The survey showed that most of these youngsters lost their virginity to the person they loved (boyfriend or girlfriend). When asked about the circumstances surrounding their first engagement in sex, more than half (54 percent) said they wanted it to happen at that time, while 38 percent claimed that their first sexual experience just happened.
“My boyfriend asked me if I loved him and I said yes,” said 16-year-old Linda. “He said that if I really loved him, I had to prove it by giving myself to him completely. I didn’t want to lose him so I had to give in to his wishes.” Six months later after “the sex encounter” happened – and pregnant! – he dumped her for another girl.
About 4 percent of the 143 female respondents have been pregnant with the average age of first pregnancy being 17. Among males, 2 percent reported that they have gotten a woman pregnant. “This disparity could mean that women, being the first to know if they are pregnant, are more inclined to admit their condition than boys,” the HAIN report explained. “On the other hand, boys may not be aware that their sexual experiences had resulted in pregnancy.”
But pregnancy is not the only risk in premature sex. There is also the peril of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, which can result in chronic infection, infertility or, in the case of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), death.
According to the Geneva-based World Health Organization, in several Asian countries including Bangladesh and Indonesia, a large proportion (26-37%) of deaths among female adolescents can be attributed to maternal causes.
Engaging in adolescent sex can also be physically damaging for the female, according to Dr Lyra Ruth Clemente-Chua, chair of the women’s advocacy committee of the Philippine Obstetrics and Gynecologic Society. “The nature of the teenager’s cervix is that at this stage its cells are not yet well-protected, thus sex can mean exposing the cervix to traumas.”
Thanks to media – print, radio and television – more than half of the respondents said they have heard about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV/AIDS among them. Nineteen percent of the respondents claimed they did not know the symptoms of STDs. Of those who knew, the commonly cited symptom is discharge from penis/vagina (11 percent), followed by burning pain or itching in penis or vagina (4 percent).
Unfortunately, myths about HIV/AIDS among Filipino youths still abound. For instance, 25 percent of the respondents from Southern Mindanao believe mosquitoes can spread the virus that causes AIDS. Forty-five percent of the respondents from ARMM think that antibiotics prevent HIV. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents from Central Visayas believe that AIDS can only affect homosexuals and sex workers.
“Why should I worry about getting AIDS,” said Zenaida, a 19-year-old freshman college student. “After all, my boyfriend is healthy and I have sex only with him.” What if her boyfriend had previous sexual relations with other individuals?
What about condoms? Seventy-seven of the respondents claimed to have heard of condoms. But only 58 percent knew that condom could reduce the risks of getting HIV/AIDS. More than a third of young people agreed that discussing the use of condoms with young people promotes promiscuity.
“We love each other,” says 17-year-old Jonathan. “If my girlfriend would ask me to use condom, then I can say that she doesn’t trust me at all.”
“It is bad enough that people are dying of AIDS, but no one should die of ignorance,” said Hollywood film actress Elizabeth Taylor, who claimed that she had sex only to the man she married – and she had been married seven times (twice to British actor Richard Burton).
Is sex education the answer to the problem of ignorance? Unfortunately, sex education is often avoided in the family, school, and communities because of the unfounded fear that discussing sex will only encourage adolescents to become sexually active.
“Conservatives say teaching sex education in the public schools will promote promiscuity. With our education system? If we promote promiscuity the same way we promote math or science, they’ve got nothing to worry about,” observes Beverly Mickins, as if talking about Filipino teachers.
The question is: What can parents do if their child is flirting with sex? There are several ways. For one, parents need to talk about sex with their child. “Sex education is best handled in a series of casual conversation, sometimes sparked by a child’s questions or comments about something you’ve both seen,” said an article which appeared in ‘Redbook,’ an American publication.
“It is not giving a child a book about sex and expecting that book to answer all his questions; it is reading that book together and using it as the jumping-off point for open-ended conversations,” ‘Redbook’ noted.
Dr Simon Clarke, an Australian expert on adolescent problems, further explained: “If you sit back and wait for your kids to start asking questions about sex, you could wait a long time. By initiating the discussion and explaining sex logically and concisely, you can impart the facts and share your values with your children at the same time.”
Another way is helping the children develop self-esteem. After all, mastery of special interests and hobbies can help children feel good about themselves in a nonsexual way. As Dr Suzanne Robertson, head of adolescent services at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children in Perth, Australia, puts it: “Parents should encourage their children to do things they’re good at like sport, music, or dance. With more things on their agendas in terms of plans for the future and things they want to do with their lives, they may be les likely to get into sexual relationships at an early age.”
There are more ways. But “the best way to prevent your children from engaging in premature sex is to help them understand that they have a bright future ahead – a future that can be easily damaged by experimenting with sex too soon,” the ‘Redbook’ said. “Listen respectfully when your child tries to share his dreams with you. “Encourage his ambitions. Explore possible career opportunities together.” — ###