Youth and Sexuality: It’s Not Just a Yes/No Debate

Brian Ackerman

As young people, we are fighting not only for access to information that will save our lives, but also to information that will help us better understand ourselves and explore sexuality safely, as a healthy and natural part of who we are.

"¡Sí se
puede,  usa el condón!  ¡Sí se puede, usa el condón!"  (Yes, you can, use a condom!)  Members of the Mexico Youth Force and
allies of young people fighting for access to comprehensive sexuality education
and services rallied outside the Global Village at the International AIDS
Conference today.  Proudly wearing our
pink shirts advocating for Rights, Respect, Responsibility, and Resources to
prevent HIV infections among young people and to support young people already
infected, we countered the demonstration of another group of young people that
was in support of abstinence-only education for youth. 

Amidst a conference of rather serious discussions and
sessions, this experience was a great expression of youthful debate.  It stood out to me because on both ends of
the prevention spectrum, young people made their voices heard.  As my group waved inflated condoms in the
air, the group adorned in lime green shirts spread the message that "zero
sleeping around = zero risk."  Although
at first glance it might seem that this confrontation of demonstrators was based
on a visible dichotomy of extremes — with abstinence (no sex and, so technically,
no risk) on one side of the argument for prevention of HIV transmission among
young people, versus condoms (sex with a reduced risk of transmission) on the
other side.   But, as is almost always
the case with prevention, the story is much more complex.

Many times the issues for which I advocate as a young sexual
health activist are unfortunately simplified to a yea or nay debate on whether
young people should be having sex. 
Visual demonstrations such as today’s battle of wits between the
"Abstinence Army" and the "Condom Clan" can reinforce this oversimplification,
although waving condoms is perhaps a more sexy visual for the media than waving
flags that say "comprehensive sexuality education for all."  While I shouted vigorously today calling for
the accessibility of condoms for young people, that is but one part of my
message (and, I believe, the message of many of my peers).  We demand recognition of our right to
comprehensive sexuality education, to sexual health services and to commodities
(of which the male condom is one example). 
Abstinence, no sex, celibacy, whatever you want to call it, is part and
parcel of that package of comprehensive information about sexual health, but it
cannot be the only part.

I want to emphasize that the notion of a spectrum of
opinions about sexuality and youth has been a common theme of many of the
sessions at the conference.  This
spectrum has included the consideration of sexuality in terms of pleasure,
well-being, and health — not only in terms of a vessel of HIV transmission.  Today’s friendly battle highlighted this for
me.  As young people, we are fighting not
only for access to information that will save our lives, but also to
information that will help us better understand ourselves and explore sexuality
safely, as a healthy and natural part of who we are, if that’s what we want as

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To those who say that such comprehensive sexuality education
cannot be achieved because of social or political resistance, we need not look
further than the regional host of the 2008 International AIDS Conference, Latin America, to prove them wrong.  Just prior to the start of the global
gathering of the AIDS community, the ministers of health and education from
countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean
signed an agreement to implement comprehensive sexuality education for young
people.  In the development of this
agreement, two young people, one from Brazil
and one from Jamaica,
were able to represent our age group, our perspective, and our
experiences.  It should not come as a
surprise to us, then, that the agreement emphasized a comprehensive approach to
sexuality education. 

If there is anything that over 25 years of HIV and AIDS has
taught us, it is that avoiding the source of infections gets us nowhere.  In a world with three billion young people
under the age of 25, we have the chance as a global community to stop running
from sexuality and embrace it as part of the fight against global AIDS, and
part of what makes life worth living. Until we accomplish that, let us continue
to proudly wave condoms in the air and demand the respect for our rights as
sexual beings.         

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