Risky young love

Perspectives on intimate relationships among young people in rural South Africa: the logic of risk. 

Edin K, Nilsson B, Ivarsson A, Kinsman J, Norris SA, Kahn K. Cult Health Sex. 2016 Mar 17:1-15. [Epub ahead of print]

This paper explores how young people in rural South Africa understand gender, dating, sexuality and risk-taking in adolescence. The empirical material drawn upon consists of 20 interviews with young men and women (aged 18-19) and reflects normative gender patterns characterised by compulsory heterosexuality and dating as obligatory, and representing key symbols of normality. However, different meanings of heterosexual relationships are articulated in the interviews, for example in the recurring concept of 'passing time', and these meanings show that a relationship can be something arbitrary: a way to reduce boredom and have casual sex. Such a rationale for engaging in a relationship reflects one of several other normative gender patterns, which relate to the trivialisation of dating and sexual risk-taking, and which entail making compromises and legitimising deviations from the 'ideal' life-script and the hope of a better future. However, risks do not exclusively represent something bad, dangerous or immoral, because they are also used as excuses to avoid sex, HIV acquisition and early pregnancy. In conclusion, various interrelated issues can both undermine and/or reinforce risk awareness and subsequent risk behaviour. Recognition of this tension is essential when framing policies to support young people to reduce sexual risk-taking behaviour.

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Editor’s notes: This article explores how young people in a poor, rural area in South Africa articulate and understand gender, dating, sexuality, and risk-taking.  Twenty young people (10 female, 10 male) aged between 18 and 19 years of age were randomly selected from three villages that participate in the Health and Socio-Demographic Surveillance System in Mpumalanga Province in north-eastern South Africa. 

Participants’ narratives highlight how normative gender patterns characterised by compulsory heterosexuality and dating as obligatory represent key symbols of normality. The authors highlight how two themes, early pregnancy and HIV, are central to understanding practices of dating and heterosexual relationships. They are also important for understanding ideas about the consequences of a dissolute lifestyle and the risk it exerts on plans and hopes for a better future. This risk was perceived to be particularly acute by, and for, young women who are seen to bear the brunt of negative outcomes, particularly relating to early school dropout.

The findings of this study have important implications for HIV prevention programmes, particularly for adolescent girls and young women. Where intimate relationships are trivialised as guided by normative gender patterns and pressure to have heterosexual relationships, young people risk becoming infected with HIV, becoming parents too early, and interrupting their education. The findings highlight the potential for context-sensitive programmes which play careful attention to local norms and young people’s internalised relationship discourses. These could usefully include opportunities for critical reflection in order to support young people to reduce their exposure to risks.  It is also important to recognise young people’s aspirations, and the perceived benefits they derive from relationships.

South Africa
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