Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

'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

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

'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

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the past 25 years, there has been an increase in literature exploring female sexual agency and its relation to various social issues (Fine, 1988; Lesch & Kruger, 2004; Madhok, Phillips & Wilson, 2013; Tolman, 2000, 2006; Tolman & Szalacha, 1999). Feminists have focused on the importance of granting women rights to make decisions regarding their reproductive lives. However, even in seemingly progressive countries whose policies protect such rights (e.g., South Africa, United States and United Kingdom included), women's reproductive decisions are still compromised in many ways.

Within a social constructionist framework, agency can be defined as how people construct their "capacity to define their own life-choices and to pursue their own goals, even in the face of opposition from others" (Kabeer, 1999: 438). Sexual agency can then be understood to be a subjective construction of how a person is empowered (or not) in the sexual sphere, in other words his/her sense that s/he has the right to make choices, take action and meet his/her own sexual needs. While women's agency includes "women's own ideas of what's possible for them to do", these are closely intertwined with "societal norms for what women should and should not do" (Strandberg, 2001: 4). How women construct their agency in the context of heterosexual relationships is thus powerfully located in and determined by multiple and intersecting material, social and cultural factors (e.g., Holland, Ramazanoglu, Sharpe & Thompson 1998; Horne, 2005; Madhok et al., 2013).

In South Africa, specifically, gender power inequalities and the low status of women in society are pervasive problems and pose a challenge to women's sexual and reproductive health (Bennett & Reddy, 2009; Bhana, 2012; Bhana & Anderson, 2013a, 2013b; Bhana & Pattman, 2009; Harrison, 2008; Jewkes & Abrahams, 2002; Jewkes & Morrell, 2010, 2012; Reddy & Dunne, 2007; Shefer & Foster, 2009). For instance, while adolescence has been identified as an important time for the development of sexual agency (Tolman, 2006), South African research suggests that women themselves regard the sexual activities of young women as inevitabilities and not as something they necessarily seek, desire or feel they have control over (Jewkes, Vundule, Maforah & Jordaan, 2001; Lesch & Kruger, 2004). The finding that young women experience limited sexual agency within intimate relationships is consistent with other research done in other contexts, both in South Africa and globally (Averett et al., 2008; Burkett & Hamilton, 2012; Geary, Baumgartner, Wedderburn, Montoya & Catone, 2013). However, young men and women may also be attempting to exercise some form of agency by resisting normative practices in a context where gender and sexual norms linked to religion, and economic and cultural conditions are constraining (Heslop & Banda, 2013; Outwater, Abrahams & Campbell, 2005). Further, messages about agency are complicated by contradictory discourses framing young women's sexuality. For example, Macleod (2011) highlights the complex and contradictory expectations regarding reproductive issues with which young women are confronted, arguing that young women are expected to display 'feminine' attributes, while also demonstrating the maturity of adolescence, attributes that often contradict each other.

Young women's constructions of their agency in terms of choosing to become sexually active, to obtain and use contraception (or not to) and to become pregnant are situationally located and shaped by peer, community and family relations in all contexts (Langille, 2007; Raneri & Wiemann, 2007). Life Orientation (LO) sexuality education programmes have been viewed as potential key locations for both the reproduction and the contestation of dominant gender discourses that impact on young women's understanding of their own sexuality, including their sexual agency (Bhana, Brookes, Makiwane & Naidoo, 2005; Prinsloo, 2007; Van Deventer, 2009). …

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