Rachael Gibson (PhD Student, Widener University, USA)
Editorial Note: Rachael Gibson is a high school health and sexuality educator, trainer and instructional coach. Teacher training is an important but often overlooked component of bridging the gap between sexuality education and positive sexual health outcomes for youth. Examining the effect of teacher gender on learner experiences in sexuality education will be important for improving teacher training and delivery of sexuality content. Reflecting on her own positionality, Rachael provides a brief overview of methodological considerations as an American in South Africa researching sexuality education.
Currently, the United States is experiencing a time of political and social turmoil. To many it feels like the world is upside down. Yet, to a vast majority of Americans of colour, it is business as usual. In the United States (US), the topics of race, class, and privilege have historically been avoided but most people still prefer to buy into the notion that we are a nation of equality – the “land of the free”. This belief system was further strengthened by the Obama presidency – surely we could not be a racist country anymore if we had a black president? In the midst of this turmoil, lies New York City (NYC), a city small in geographical area, but large in population, mindset, influence, and attitude. Vastly different from the rest of the country in values, demographics and population dynamics, the New York City mentality keeps us separated from the rest of the US. It is a place where thought leaders in education, politics and policy live and work. While this separation lends itself to the larger-than-life persona that is the ‘Big Apple’, we are at times unaware of the world around us. New York City, for many of us, feels like the centre of the universe.
It is here in NYC that I have built my career as a health and sexuality educator for almost two decades. Sadly, the current conservative shift in the US’s political climate is rapidly reversing years of progress and reform in the overall education system. Progressive and comprehensive sexuality education, interventions and services are particularly under threat. There have been drastic budget cuts in programming, which affect both the US and global programs on sexual and reproductive health. We are also seeing new policies introduced that are prohibiting abortion and contraceptives, discriminating against LGBTQ+ populations, and reversing hard-won educational and prison reforms.
It was the privilege of my identity as a New Yorker, the experience I hold as an educator, and the pursuit of my PhD that led me to South Africa and the Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences (DSBS), based in the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine. On January 20, 2017, the day of President Trump’s inauguration, I left the US to embark on an internship in Cape Town. The purpose of this internship was to learn about sexuality education in South Africa in preparation for my PhD research, as well as to provide assistance to the various community-based initiatives associated with DSBS. I gained valuable lessons on positionality and community and most notably, learned that our two nations are remarkably similar, particularly with regard to sexuality education. This realisation led me to modify the focus of my PhD research, in the hope of impacting the landscape of sexuality education beyond my own country. In this piece, I share initial findings about sexuality education in South Africa, and how these findings led to my current PhD research. I also reflect on my positionality within this work by considering how my identity, social location, and privilege impacts my methodological choices and frameworks.
There has been a vast amount of research conducted in Africa in the fields of public health and epidemiology. These disciplines, while seeking solutions to important health issues, have also contributed to problematising and fetishising the continent as a whole, its people, and their behaviours, despite the fact that these vary dramatically from place to place within this enormous continent (1). Researchers from the “global north” have been drawn to South Africa in particular, the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and have medicalised sexuality by developing models, frameworks and advocacy projects implicitly focused on ‘fixing’ African sexuality (whatever that might mean) (2). In fact, sexuality is extremely nuanced. It holds many deeply-embedded meanings and interpretations of gendered expectations, which are in turn impacted by history, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, culture, locality, and disability (2). These phenomena must be taken into account, and research should reflect these nuances (2).
Historically, research on the African continent has revealed a systemic pattern of ethnocentric and racist constructions of African people by ‘Western’ researchers that has bled into popular culture (2). Africanists in the US have sometimes been complicit in building negative narratives and giving “insufficient consideration to the intellectual agendas and scholarship of African scholars” (1). As an American researcher in South Africa, it has been important that I remain reflective and make careful, intentional decisions regarding my chosen methodologies, so as to avoid overly reinforcing these patterns and hierarchies in my own research.
Non-African researchers are increasingly urged to “question whether studying Africa is in fact an ethical thing to do, and to consider the implications of the our [sic] identities, locations, and institutional affiliations, as well as the epistemological and methodological constraints and choices that inform such studies” (1). However, researchers should not seek to disregard Western concepts and frameworks, which may lead to a waste of considerable resources and ‘reinventing the wheel’. Rather, they should conduct research that is cognisant of continental specifics, with a focus on improving upon them (2). Respectful methodologies are grounded in political awareness and recognise that much of knowledge production actually lies beyond or outside of formal academia (3). Researchers should implement a reflexive approach that questions how a researcher’s own positionality as a white American may compromise their process of knowledge production (4).
The so-called ‘transformative paradigm’ can be applied in the research of people and communities where there is oppression and a lack of access to social justice. It emphasises respect for cultural norms and the promotion of human rights with a specific connection to the outcomes of the research to “further a social justice agenda” (5). Recognising the influence of power and privilege on knowledge, it addresses the notion that knowledge is socially and historically situated between the researcher and participants, not by the researcher and about participants. Therefore, it is critical that close collaboration and the development of a trusting relationship are emphasised (5).
The approach also uses a strengths-based lens, amplifying the knowledge of indigenous peoples and scholars from marginalised communities in order to teach researchers about respect for culture in unequal power relationships when investigating social problems (5). Research methods grounded in this paradigm often utilise community involvement and participatory research methods to promote social change (5). By building partnerships between, for example, academics, research participants, activists and educators, one finds ample opportunities for cross-cultural, cross-continental teaching and learning about sexual lives. In so doing, researchers can make progress towards decolonising methodologies and working within a transformative paradigm (3). An ethical framework for researchers then becomes one where the researcher builds a transformative methodology with participants, exchanging tools for life-enriching experiences for those who have experienced multiple oppressions (6).
As a white American, it would feel irresponsible not to reflect on the fact that my nationality, race and Western-ness entails a specific positionality that will profoundly shape my perspectives and interpretations. As an educator, researcher and scholar, my goal is to centre the people I am working with and offer my research as a form of support rather than a structure to emulate. I am white, American, cisgender, able-bodied, and educated, among others. Through these “positions” in the world, I am granted extensive privileges. This privilege, along with a natural curiosity and adventurous spirit, has allowed me to grow as a global citizen. In return, I work hard to try and learn about cultures and experiences different from my own. The subtle nuances of culture are specific, and often only identifiable after stumbles and through crashes of error. In the process and despite being “easier said than done, [I] continue to work on decolonising the white space that I inhabit (4)”.
Historically, most South African sexuality education was based on the notion of “improving” the country by means of the apartheid project’s eugenicist approach. According to the nationalist government, the future of a prosperous South Africa rested on the shoulders of monogamous, heterosexual and married parents of middle- and upper-class white people (7). Today in South Africa, sex education is often synonymous with HIV/AIDS prevention due to a variety of social norms, cultural and ethnic variations, health statistics and the country’s unique history (8). Although there was undeniable evidence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa during the 1980s, it has been largely a post-apartheid issue, the pace of the epidemic lagging almost 20 years behind the rest of the continent, with an acceleration during the post-apartheid transition (9). Some believe the increase exacerbated by the silence of political leaders, including Nelson Mandela, and continued denial and controversy from his successor, Thabo Mbeki (9). The HIV prevalence rate, as estimated by the South African government in 2018, is approximately 13.1% - an estimated 19% of the adult population is HIV positive (10).
In the late 1990s, a course called Life Orientation (LO) was created by the South African Department of Basic Education. LO is a mandatory course in late primary and throughout secondary school, focusing on key life skills areas, including sexuality and HIV education (11). However, teachers experience a lack of support, resources and materials. LO is usually not their main area of expertise either, as most LO teachers are actually trained in other areas but may have relatively lighter teaching load than other teachers and are thus become de facto LO teachers (11). Further complicating matters, LO teachers are often given a lot of autonomy in delivering the sex education portion of the course (11). Generally, teachers do not deliver a balanced approach that is sex-positive and comprehensive. Instead, the focus is on HIV prevention, often invoking fear and guilt, and sometimes restricting students’ access to information (8,11-13). This is partly to do with a limited curriculum but is complicated by the fact that teachers sometimes have great difficulty in separating their own values from their pedagogy.
The problem highlighted above is not unique to South Africa but is intensified by the fact that traditional frameworks for teacher education in South Africa do not offer opportunities to reflect on and reconcile their personal and professional values regarding sexuality (8,14). The course must be properly implemented (i.e. taught) for it to yield positive results on health outcomes. As noted above, there are a variety of existing problems with the curricular and implementation aspects of LO. Teacher training is thus a key component of success in bridging the gap between comprehensive, skills-based, medically accurate sexuality education and positive sexual health outcomes for young people. In practice though, sexuality education (as part of the Life Orientation course) is often taught by teachers who lack the pedagogical training and experience required to effectively teach young people about sexuality (12).
Numerous studies have cited a lack of self-efficacy and confidence among Life Orientations teachers along with documenting a need for advanced training in both content expertise and methodology (8,11-13,15). Many of the systemic issues in the educational system of South Africa are remnants of the apartheid era (16). With South Africa’s ongoing social and political democratic growth, the landscape of education is experiencing a lack of leadership that affects quality implementation of sexuality education (14,16). There is also an interesting body of research that considers the demographics of a teacher and its effects on learners, but the resulting evidence is conflicting, and no studies look specifically at teacher gender in the context of a sexuality education classroom.
Much of my work with UCT was in Gugulethu, Cape Town. I worked with the Movement for Change and Social Justice (MCSJ), a social movement focused on active citizenship, improving service delivery through brokering connections between local government and the community, and working on issues around sexual and reproductive health, among other areas. This work was based in activism surrounding sexuality education and gender-based issues including: conquering gender-based violence, examining positive masculinities in the context of HIV prevention, providing free sanitary napkins for school-aged girls, and advocating for condoms to be made available for secondary learners who need them. Through this activist work, my MCSJ comrades invited me to participate in multiple meetings with stakeholders: school principals, teachers, school board members, clinic workers and administrators, the South African Police Service (SAPS), church leaders, and other NGO activists. It is through these various relationships that I learned about the real-world barriers and bridges to sexuality education within Gugulethu. I realised that these barriers are much more similar to those within my own context than I had originally expected, especially with regard to teacher preparedness, cultural nuance, and gaps in the overall educational system.
My PhD project will work to understand the dynamics of teacher demographics (specifically, gender) within the sexuality education classroom. MCSJ is a supporter of comprehensive sexuality education and it is through this lens that I offer my proposed research and future results as a support framework to the community goals of Gugulethu, MCSJ and UCT. I will collect both quantitative (survey) and qualitative (focus group) data to examine how perceptions of teacher gender affects learners’ knowledge and attitudes in the sexuality education portion of the Life Orientations course. The results of this research will inform the implementation of curricula, especially as it relates to teacher training and delivery of sexuality content through specific pedagogical strategies. As teacher training is one of the paramount components of success in bridging the gap between comprehensive, skills-based, medically accurate sexuality education and positive sexual health outcomes for youth, the findings of this research will inform future teacher training and development. Through the research, I hope to continue to push forward the discourse on policies affecting who is teaching sexuality education, as well as how it is being taught at both the local and global levels. Reflecting on the parallels and dichotomies between our two countries, we must build capacity in teachers to impact change by empowering learners to practice promotive sexual health behaviours.
1. Mama A. (2007). Is it ethical to study Africa? Preliminary thoughts on scholarship and freedom. African Studies Review, 50(1), 1-26.
2. Tamale S. (2011). African Sexualities: A reader. Dakar, Nairobi, Oxford: Pambazuka Press.
3. Dlamini S, Maticka-Tyndale E, Omorrodion F, Amucha U, Lowik A, (2012). What does decolonizing/decentralizing methodology in examining sexual lives entail? African Journal of Reproductive Health 16(2), 55-70.
4. Rios V. (2015). Decolonizing the White space in urban ethnography. City & Community 14(3), 258-261.
5. Mertens D. (2009). Transformative Research and Evaluation. New York: The Guilford Press.
6. Chilisa B & Ntseane G. (2010). Resisting dominant discourse: Implications of indigenous, African feminist theory and methods for gender and education research. Gender and Education 22(6), 617-632.
7. Duff SE. (2015). ‘Facts about Ourselves’: Negotiating sexual knowledge in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa. Kronos 41, 215-235.
8. Francis D. (2013). Sexuality education in South Africa: Whose values are we teaching? Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 22(2), 69-76.
9. Posel Deborah. (2011). ‘Getting the nation talking about sex’: Reflections on the politics of sexuality and nation-building in post-apartheid South Africa. In S. Tamale, African Sexualities: A reader (pp. 130-144). Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford: Pambazuka Press.
10. Statistics South Africa. (2018). Mid-year population estimates. Pretoria, South Africa. Retrieved from https://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0302/P03022018.pdf
11. Francis D & DePalma R. (2015). ‘You need to have some guts to teach’: Teacher preparation and characteristics for the teaching of sexuality and HIV/AIDS education in South African schools. Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS 12(1), 30-38.
12. Francis D. (2017a). Homophobia and sexuality diversity in South African schools: A review. Journal of LGBT Youth 0(0), 1-21.
13. Francis D. (2017b). Troubling the teaching and learning of gender and sexuality diversity in South African education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
14. Wood L. and Rollen L. (2014). Designing an effective sexuality education curriculum for schools: Lessons gleaned from the South(ern) African literature. Sex Education 14(5), 525-542.
15. Tucker L, George G, Reardon C, Panday S. (2016). ‘Learning the basics’: Young people’s engagement with sexuality education at secondary schools. Sex Education 16(4), 337-352.
16. Helleve A, Fisher AJ, Onya H, Mukoma W & Klepp K-I. (2009). South African teachers’ reflections on the impact of culture on their teaching of sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 11(2),189–204.
Rachael E. Gibson, MPH, MS, MEd is a high school health and sexuality educator, trainer and instructional coach with over 18 years of experience in the field. She is based in New York City, and has taught Sexuality Education all over the U.S. and the world, most recently in conjunction with the University of Cape Town in South Africa and at Chongqing Technology University in China. Ms. Gibson’s emphasis is adolescent sexuality with a strong focus on social justice, women’s empowerment, and sex positive education for young men. Ms. Gibson facilitates a variety of workshops for educators, administrators, parents and youth. In addition, she is an adjunct professor of Human Sexuality. Ms. Gibson holds a B.S. in Health Science from the University of Arizona, an MPH from California State University, Long Beach and a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from the City College of New York. She is a current PhD student in Widener University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies.
Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences
School of Public Health and Family Medicine
Level 3 Falmouth Building
University of Cape Town