Students at University X can easily protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections: they have access to emergency contraception on campus as well as confidential counseling and medical services. They can freely find condoms at one of the town’s four pharmacies as well as at a downtown bodega and the public hospital.
On campus, however, rumors regarding STIs, unplanned pregnancies and abortions, in particular, swirl. When asked about rates of abortion and STIs on campus, students invariably mention stories concerning “a friend of a friend” or someone “who used to be at the university.”
Ignorance regarding sexual culture may stem from a lack of comprehensive sexual education in school and at home. Though AIDS, HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and viral hepatitis are mentioned in secondary public school textbooks, reproductive education is often restricted to biology classrooms. Education centers on the biomedical model, which introduces diseases, discusses cures and emphasizes prevention, while placing limited emphasis on psychosocial aspects of sexual behavior like self-esteem and respect for others. Focusing on psychology and behavior is part of the health promotion model of sexual education, which has been shown to improve sexual decision-making.
In the schools, many teachers refuse to teach sexuality-related topics to pupils under 15 years of age. Education regarding contraception is often, at least in the legal sense, restricted to married couples, and some Muslim authorities warn against premarital sexual education among those who are not engaged to be married: they believe it encourages sexual behaviors and is prohibited by Shari’a law, which they say condemns extramarital sex. Others indicate, on the other hand, that the Qur’an encourages sexual education to contribute to good health.
According to UNAIDS, the Moroccan government’s refusal to acknowledge premarital sex makes designing programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs very difficult. Though the Moroccan Ministry of National Education signed a bill to promote reproductive health education in Moroccan schools in March of 2014, it is unclear whether this measure is adapted to the possibility of premarital sexual relationships among students.
As Larbi Arbaoui writes in Morocco World News, the new program “aims to inform, sensitize and educate young students in hygiene practices and develop their skills to adopt attitudes to face the problematic health situations, including those relating to puberty, AIDS, early marriage and family planning.”
Moroccan ministries also encourage non-governmental organizations to target sexual education, but these groups often lack human and financial resources.
Regardless of that program’s acknowledgment of premarital sex, it comes too late for many current students who come to campus unprepared for the sexual culture there: three students interviewed indicated they had no sexual education in private and public high schools. One male former student, Y., describes the level of sexual knowledge among new students as low.
“(People coming from high school) don’t actually have any sexual education,” said Y. “They’re just thrown in the middle of the thing (campus life) knowing nothing.”
Dr. Jallal Toufiq, a school counselor, psychiatrist and director of the Arrazi Hospital in Salé, believes students are ignorant about sex due to a lack of education in families, which he says often don’t talk about sex, and schools.
“When you see what the schools’ curricula offer in terms of sexual education, it’s really scarce,” said Toufiq. “It’s not that elaborated, let’s put it this way. It’s some hours here and there, at school. It’s a two-hour course. Most of the time, it’s inserted within the scientific courses, when people talk about giving birth and pregnancy.”
Toufiq says that since premarital sex is considered as counter to Islam, sexual education focuses on science rather than behavior or pleasure.
Student sexual culture, says H., a male student, varies among individuals, and depends mostly on culture, education and personal experiences. He indicates that views on sex can change drastically once they come to university.
“When (students) came to (University X), they find someone here, they open their eyes for the new stuff,” said H. “They didn’t have any sexual education before, so they don’t ask. They don’t try to learn. They just get into action.”
New male students, says Y., expect university to be like an American Pie movie, and therefore seek out as many sexual encounters as possible. According to Y., male and female students often fail to engage in safe practices, be it due to lack of knowledge or fears, when tied with condom use, of minimized pleasure.
Last semester, Dr. Glorianna Pionati, a professor and college counselor, worked with roughly 350 students. Twenty-five to 30 percent of these individuals, she says, came to her with sexuality-related issues. She describes students as open about the university’s student sexual culture among themselves. Students are very secretive, though, says Pionati, when it comes to keeping sexual information from family and outside community members.
Toufiq also describes diversity in levels of openness among students: some are very open, he says, while others are “not always talkative” about sexual culture. Toufiq says he encounters student sexuality when treating issues related to, for example, gender and sexual orientation. Openness regarding sexuality is hemmed, he says, by culture.
“Even though (University X) students may seem to be more open, more articulate about it, this is a conservative society, and they’re not educated in the way they could talk about their sexual lives and patterns very easily,” said Toufiq.
This ignorance, says Toufiq, leads students to be unprepared for university sexual culture and probably results in many unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
Y. also traces the mix of sexual ignorance and expectations regarding a new sexual culture to the transmission of venereal diseases between students. He recalls a young friend who came to the university as a virgin and eventually contracted syphilis due to lack of awareness regarding safe sexual practices and has heard rumors about a small HIV epidemic in another urban university.
Despite lack of knowledge among some, though, multiple male students interviewed indicated that they get tested for STIs often and so do their male friends. H. indicates that the majority of his male friends use condoms and says he receives blood tests every three months.
According to M., some couples use the pullout method to avoid pregnancy. This method, he says, “doesn’t work that much.”
When students do use contraception, some believe that use of birth control pills in a stable relationship makes forgoing condom use acceptable.
“I think if it’s somebody really trusted, like a boyfriend for a long time, I think the pill would be a good option for birth control,” said Y. “But if you’re in the early stages of the relationship and you still don’t know the person you’re with, I think the condom really would be the best option.”
When asked what consequences pregnant female students face, Y. indicates that judgments and ensuing psychological burdens often cause them to transfer their studies to another university. These consequences, he says, come both from Moroccan society at large and from the university community.
“Religiously talking, it’s forbidden to have premarital sex,” said Y. “It’s really seen as something evil, as something really bad, like she did the worst crime in humanity by having sex. Not even for students in (University X) who are open minded – when they see these things, they start making fun of it, instead of being really supportive to the person, trying to understand the person.”
Toufiq recalls a student who, to avoid her parents’ involvement in her pregnancy, went on an exchange program and later dropped out of university.
M., who has heard of “five or six cases” of unplanned pregnancy, both within and outside of his friendship circle, indicates that female students who want to have abortions travel to large cities like Fes, Rabat, Casablanca or Agadir.
O., who received all of her information regarding abortion providers from friends, also indicates instances of abortion among female friends.
“I’m sure if you ask any girl, she knows at least one girl who’s done it,” said O.
H. says that the majority of his student friends have made women pregnant and that these women subsequently abort due, among other factors, to potential family shame.
“Morocco is (a) very conservative society,” said H. “(The woman’s) family will feel shame. Everyone will feel shame. I would feel merciful for her, because people are worms, the way they’re going to look at her, they way they’re going to treat her.”
Y. mentions that sometimes, male students also attempt to force pregnant partners to abort. When female students are not willing to undergo this procedure, says Y., their partners try to secretly feed them harmful medicines. According to Y., knowledge of their role may damage their careers and studies.
Next time: Is a University X sexual education course feasible?
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