‘I could have done everything and why not?’: young women’s complex constructions of sexual agency in the context of sexualities education in Life Orientation in South African schools

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Peer-Reviewed Research
  • SDG 5
  • SDG 3
  • Abstract:

    Progressive policies protecting women’s rights to make reproductive decisions and the recent increase in literature exploring female sexual agency do not appear to have impacted on more equitable sexual relations in all contexts. In South Africa, gender power inequalities, intersecting with other forms of inequality in society, pose a challenge for young women’s control over their sexual and reproductive health. The article focuses on a group of young Coloured South African women’s understandings of their sexual agency, in an attempt to explore how it is explicitly and implicitly shaped by school Life Orientation (LO) sexuality programmes. We found young women constructed their agency as simultaneously enabled and constrained in complex ways: on the one hand, the explicit communication was that they should have agency and take responsibility for themselves sexually, whereas the implicit communication seemed to convey that what they really thought and felt about sex and sexuality was not important. In addition, heteronormative gender roles, in which men are assumed to take the lead in sexual matters, appear to be reproduced in LO sexuality education messages and further complicate young women’s constructions of their sexual agency. The implications of these findings for LO sexuality programmes are discussed.