Too young to have sex: conversations with very young adolescents about sex, dating and related decision-making
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Very young adolescents receive little research and pragmatic attention regarding their sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs. As a result, their experiences are often overlooked. Furthermore, when this age group is included in SRH education, the dominant public health lens tends to focus on health risks associated with sex, with less emphasis on a holistic approach that considers the sociocultural and relational contexts in which adolescents' decision-making about sex and dating occurs. The objectives were to explore the beliefs, perceptions and decision-making pathways of adolescents about heterosexual sex, dating and relationships. The sample included 33 girls and 30 boys aged 10 - 14 years attending schools in rural Mpumalanga Province, South Africa. Data collection entailed participatory methodologies of group-based activities and individual interviews. Data were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were coded and analysed using thematic analysis. The findings focused on three themes: timing of dating, relationships and sex; gendered depictions of first sex; and agency in sexual decision-making. These themes shed light on the relational context in which adolescents' decision-making takes place and highlight the pervasive influence of wider gendered norms. Conclusion. Very young adolescents are not sexually naive and instead are faced with complex decisions regarding sex and dating. This age group is not, however, fully supported in developing a healthy, positive sexuality when emphasis is on the negative outcomes of sex. The paper concludes with recommendations for adolescent SRH programmes to provide a supportive environment for younger adolescents to make informed choices and develop positive, healthy sexualities.