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Speaking of Sex

By Greg Rienzi

Let's talk about sex. A recent study suggests that mothers and their children in the Philippines should be doing more of just that.

The study confirms that there is a significant intergenerational gap in the country when it comes to conveying information about sex, and what mothers know of their adolescents' sexual behavior.

Premarital sex in the Philippines has become more common, despite the strong presence of the Catholic Church (a factor that also minimizes condom use), according to researcher Michelle Hindin, PhD '98, MHS '90, an associate professor of Population, Family and Reproductive Health.

According to Hindin, Filipino youth are engaging in sexual activity but are ill-prepared to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and unintentional pregnancy. The rise in HIV cases, she says, is a particular concern.

Hindin, who began her research in 2001 while a postdoctoral fellow, built upon the ongoing Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey, which examines children born to more than 3,000 women in the Cebu province of the Philippines from May 1983 to April 1984. For the study, researchers periodically (from 1999 to 2005) asked the youth questions, such as when they first had sex and whether they talked to parents about sex. The mothers, or primary caregivers, were similarly asked if they talked to their child about sex or if they thought the child was sexually active.

The study finds kids and parents are not talking nearly enough and that moms do not have a real grasp of their children's sexual behavior. For example, only 6 percent of boys and 13 percent of girls reported talking with their mothers about sex relations at any age. A higher percentage of mothers—20 percent—reported having such conversations with their daughters, but only 15 percent of moms says they discussed sex with their sons. More strikingly, 67 percent of the boys reported having had sexual intercourse by age 21, in a given year, whereas only 30 percent of moms thought they had.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

"The prevailing concern, certainly in a conservative population like the Philippines, is that talking about sex will lead to children having intercourse," Hindin says. "But, clearly, many are doing it anyway. What we noticed is that a lack of communication is a problem that stands in the way."

Studies in the U.S., Hindin says, have found that parent-child communication has been shown to be protective against risky sexual behavior and is likely to be related to the timing of sexual debut.

What's needed in the Philippines, where the Church is so strong and the parents are uncomfortable talking about sex, are programs that teach parents how to have such conversations, or school-based sex education, Hindin says.

"Religion is certainly a barrier here. Abortion is illegal, and contraception is hard to get hold of," she says. "Right now there is an abstinence-only message. However, we are hoping that with this data, instituting such [sex education] programs might be an easier sell."