At a time when teenage pregnancy is frequently reported as a widespread problem and teenage mothers are perceived as deviant adolescents who are headed for adverse life outcomes, the latest issue of Agenda addresses an important aspect of young women’s and men’s experience as its theme, “Teenage fertility and desire”.

The guest editor, Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, writes that the desires of teenagers have received very little research attention, and that the world which teenagers construct and live in is not well understood. In popular discourses, for example, teenage sex and sexuality are often associated with disease, delinquency and danger. The desires, passions and aspirations that inform young people’s sexual identities and experiences remain under researched and seldom discussed. The latest issue of Agenda has a number of contributions that discuss the world inhabited by teenagers and shed light on the complex and diverse ways in which desire and fertility intersect/ are experienced and understood by teenagers.

Professor Catriona Macleod, psychologist and author on the subject of teenage desire and fertility is interviewed by the guest editor, Nolwazi Mkhwanazi. In the interview she reflects on the multiplicity of meanings of desire and points out that this notion is interlinked with a range of power relations including ability and age. She explains that the negative perceptions which are widely held on teenage pregnancy and motherhood are essentially a social commentary on teenage desire and sexuality. Macleod also discusses Michelle Fine’s idea of the ‘missing discourse of desire’ in relation to South Africa and the notion of ‘ sexual and reproductive citizenship’. She concludes that “young people need to be in a position to express not only sexual desire, but also their rights to participation, access, and equal and just treatment with regard to sexual and reproductive health”.

The contestation of motherhood as the primary form of desire is discussed in an article by Tessa Lamb and Louise Vincent whose research study is on young women who choose to have breast surgery that will preclude their being able to breastfeed. The article explores why a particular ‘middle-class’ body image in their case is more compelling than the dominant social messages that motherhood prescribes. The critical role of peers in shaping teenager’ self-identity and perception is emphasised by several writers. Erin Stern and Rethabile Mashale in their article discuss the sexual biographies of three young men who reflect on sexual debut as a moment of vulnerability and naivete which over time has shifted to conform with dominant male stereotypes where a calculated, controlled attitude to sex verges on the exploitative and abusive. The need to conform with the dominant ways of being men raises the issue of the high levels of gender violence in South Africa, and condom use. Reshma Sathiparsad and Myra Taylor’s research among school-going youth in Durban reports that for young men sexual relationships were about dominance, control and pleasure. Little consideration was given to condom usage and the possible consequences of unprotected sex.  Young men felt pressure from other males and females to demonstrate their masculinity by treating women as sex objects and engaging in risky sexual behaviour.

The second half of the issue turns to teenage and pregnancy. Even though  there has been a sharp decline in both teenage fertility and pregnancy rates in the last 20 years in South Africa, negative perceptions of teenage pregnancy remain. The widespread negative perceptions of teenage pregnancy affect how and when teenagers tell their immediate family members about their pregnancies. Sisa Ngabaza article discusses the different strategies that young women employ to tell their families about their pregnancies.  At the heart of the strategies are ways of reduce the impact of the news and facilitating a smoother entry into pregnancy and parenting for themselves and their families.

Zarina Chohan and Malose Langa’s article on school-going teenage challenges another widespread idea that girls who become pregnant at school are not serious about their education and will eventually drop-out. The young women in their study had already given birth and returned to school. Despite the extra responsibilities and hours needed to take care of their children, the teenage mothers were doing better in class than their classmates. Their motivation to excel at school was driven by their heightened sense of responsibility to provide a better future for their children.

Sexuality education programmes in sub-Saharan African countries have had limited success. Florence Muhanguzi and Anna Ninslima’s article examines whether the sexuality education that  learners in Ugandan schools receive addresses their lived experiences. They also asked learners  for input on issues that needed to be addressed. Among the responses from the learners was the need for sex education gives equal emphasis to boys and girls reproductive health and sexuality in understanding of why sex is important. They requested less prescriptive material and more information on the decisions they have to make. This issue spans several important and often glossed over areas of sexual identity among teenagers. It suggests that much more work needs to be done to change prevailing attitudes that are often on the one-hand over-prescriptive as a means to control teenage fertility and on the other do not recognise the agency and responsibility of young parents and their need to depend on social support networks that encourage healthy desire and sexual and reproductive health citizenship that is based on gender equality and respect.