spiralling down the unsafe sex road
“Birds do it,
Bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it.
Let's do it,
Let's fall in love"
~ Cole Porter
Farhana* aged 16, was at a party at a popular club in town with her 19 year old current boyfriend, Jamshed. The drugs and alcohol were flowing freely, she was high on both and at one point, she and Jamshed find an empty room and start getting physical. Jamshed had been asking her a lot lately about having sex. She felt guilty every time he made comments like 'I love you. I want to be with you like forever...marry you, have kids, go the whole way. I think the time's right...we should do it now. Don't you love me? Looks like you don't.” She'd kept dodging the issue but tonight she felt giddy and the inhibitions she'd been having were blissfully absent. And so in a dark, deserted, bare-of-furniture room, Farhana 'made love' with the 'guy of her dreams'. Without a condom.
Bombarded with mixed messages, hormones racing at the speed of light, trapped by taboos that don't answer their questions, more teens these days are doing a whole lot more than just 'falling in love'. If you think promiscuity is just a disease of the West and 'it's better here' where adolescents here are protected by a cocoon of 'culture', you're in for a very rude awakening.
Last week, two of our correspondents got into a conversation with some young people about their views on relationships and dating. What they heard was jarring enough to set them on a quest of discovery, and this week, we share their findings. Be prepared for the disturbing truth...
“It's such a common scene”, exclaims Maheen, aged 17. “The guys make the girls believe that everything's perfect and somehow pursue them to go for it. They sweet-talk the girls. Nowadays having sex means proving your love's true worth. I think they all just want to go physical and are using love as a scapegoat! There's nothing much to do here and girls aren't given a lot of freedom to pursue their interests. They're looking for all the thrills that they can get and this is one of the most forbidden of all the thrills. ”
Adnan, aged 20, tells us of his friends who regularly schedule their activities at his place, sometimes even on an everyday basis. I think there's too much sex on TV R-rated movies that don't promote condoms or anything. And there's overuse of drugs and drinks. It's so widely available nowadays. 'Good weed' costs only Taka 80 here. That's cheap. You get high; then you go crazy.”
With more and more of this city's urbane teens falling into this trap, there is increased peer pressure on those who don't have 'someone special' and haven't done 'it'. Furthermore, teens who use alcohol or drugs are more likely to go for it than those who don't, as they're more likely to engage in risky behaviour.
“Teen sex is definitely on the rise”, stated Dr Dilruba Nilufar, consultant gynaecologist at the Dhaka Mahanagar Hospital. While not many studies have been conducted on this subject, the frequency of young, unmarried girls below the age of 18 seeking help regarding pregnancies, STDs and other sex-related problems has increased over the past couple of years. She places the starting age for such cases at 15-16 years.
But even sober teens are having unprotected sex. Why? Mainly because they're either unaware of the risks involved or are living in a sense of false security. Obviously, teens consider casual sex partners risky. Yet teens' decisions to use condoms are based more on a partner's attitudes toward condoms than on their own perception of risk. And teens may feel a false sense of security about main partners. False because so many teens with main partners also have casual partners. And it's false because serial monogamy having one “main” partner for a brief time and then another isn't an effective safe-sex strategy. Sexual health may be jeopardised when one partner views the relationship as a mutually committed one but the other partner doesn't which is the case here most of the time. One must take into account that the starting age for many of these teens is very low. At this point of time, although they cannot really claim complete ignorance about the risks and the import of what they're doing (heck, with the media's obsession with the birds and bees, you have to be a hermit not to know) their knowledge is largely incomplete, and this, combined with their devil-may-care attitude towards the whole thing, is just a time-bomb waiting to explode.
It's absolutely crucial to stress the need for consistent condom use regardless of the teen's feelings toward the partner, sense of the partner's commitment, or the length of the relationship.
From the heavens to the womb to the heavens again
From ending to ending, never got to begin
As irresponsible as these youngsters are being about their own lives, they are also playing with the lives of others, especially when pregnancy comes to play. According to information gathered from a counselling centre, there are two types of teens who come to the counselling seeking advice regarding pregnancy. A significant number of them are young girls from lower-middle income groups who claim the intercourse was forced on them by older male cousins or other relatives, and who have little or no knowledge about birth control. The other type comprises more affluent college students who are well aware of the consequences of what they are doing. The question remains, though: do they really know?
Anika 18, sadly states “You ask any young kid and they'll know at least three to four girls who have an abortions. I'm sure the number's more as people obviously like to keep such stuff hush-hush. They go with their friends or boyfriends and getting the money is no big deal. Abortion costs around Tk 6,000 or even less. The guy and girl 'go Dutch' or the friends help out and you're done. They're more scared about their parent's reaction to the pregnancy than anything else”.
This being a country with a Muslim majority, abortion is not encouraged or recognised by the government. Pregnancy termination is carried out under the name of Menstrual Regulation (MR), and maybe legally performed on pregnancies up to 12 weeks old. Termination of pregnancies advanced beyond 12 weeks is considered as illegal abortion, and is punishable by law. It must be added here, that even early termination is risky for first-time mothers, as there's an 80% risk of permanent infertility amongst other threats, not least of which is that abortion performed before age 18 increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 150%.
Who's afraid of the big bad bug?
Most adolescents here are very much ignorant about STDs and how they're transmitted. And when asked whether they practice safe sex and how they felt about accidental pregnancies the answers were nothing if not horrifying. Of the teens we spoke to, while most knew about condoms, many still preferred not to use them, because apparently it is less 'enjoyable'. The girls, many of them relying on sketchy ideas about menstrual cycles, don't insist on their partners using protection.
Very few, if any of our respondents were aware that STD's can occur even when there is no intercourse. With diseases like herpes, mononucleosis, and more spreading through exchange of saliva, you're not safe just because you're not 'going the whole way'.
Also STDs are sexist-they damage women much worse than men (refer to links). In a single act of unprotected sex with an infected partner, a teenage woman has 1% risk of acquiring HIV, a 30% risk of getting genital herpes, and a 50% chance of contracting gonorrhoea.
Let's Talk About Sex
All this shows how very important it's becoming to have comprehensive sex education in schools that include simple, straightforward and positive messages about sex, sexual relationships, reproduction and birth control, sexually-transmitted diseases, and sexual abuse.
Sadat, aged 25 emphasises, “You cannot stop people from having sex. But you can ensure that they practice it safely, which is imperative. Purchase of contraceptives should be made easier. Going to a pharmacy to get condoms, where everybody will smirk behind your back isn't a healthy sexual attitude towards guys let alone girls. There should be dispensaries or vending machines providing contraceptives and things like booklets on safe sex. They should also be available in supermarket shelves so that it saves the blushes to ask for it. And please; it's about high time we had sex education in our schools. Parents, relatives, our education system shy away from a subject still considered taboo. Big mistake. Big.”
Dr Sabin Afrin, gynaecologist, Dhaka Mahanagar Hospital disagrees about the viability of sex education programs in schools. In her opinion, in a conservative society like ours, such programs would not be welcomed by parents. Dr. Dilruba Nilufar, who echoes this sentiment, however, stresses on sex education at home. The Talk, when it happens between parents and preteens, and it must, if we are to protect our kids against these frightening circumstances, should cover more than the basic 'menstrual cycles and stay away from boys' package.
Information is power, and in this high-risk day and age, children and teens need all the information they can get. Refusing to talk about sex doesn't mean that children are safe, that nothing bad will happen to them. When you withhold information about sex, reproduction, the possibility of sexual abuse and contracting STDs from your children you are simply putting all children at risk.
To be more aware of how YOU can be at risk please visit:
By Sabrina F Ahmad and Simin Saifuddin
Special thanks to Dr Dilruba Nilufar and Dr. Sabin Afrin. All names (and places) of our other respondents have been changed to protect privacy.
Many of you will be disturbed by what you have read in this article, just as we were with our findings. This is definitely a sensitive issue, but on the other hand, we at Lifestyle believe that it is time we stopped playing ostrich and faced the facts. Teen sex is definitely on the rise, along with the horrors of abortion, unwanted pregnancies, and STD's, and we definitely have to break the silence if we are to deal with it.