Robyn Dayton is a Technical Officer at FHI where she works on the research utilization portfolio of youth reproductive and sexual health activities.

I recently traveled with an FHI colleague, Allison Prickett, to Kenya and Botswana to test a new set of activities that were designed to prevent multiple and concurrent partnerships (MCPs) among youth.  For more information on our trip and the health impact of these sorts of partnerships see Allison’s blog entry from March 7, 2011.

What struck me most in the field tests is just how common these kinds of partnerships are and how complex and difficult it will be to change this behavior.  Even as they acknowledged how dangerous MCPs can be, the youth we spoke to described the need for having multiple sexual partners at one time.  We heard often that young people believe it’s impossible to get what one needs from just one sexual partner.  For example, young women talked about having one financially supportive partner, commonly called a sugar daddy, and a partner who is closer to her age—someone with whom she has a romantic connection.  Young men reported that having two or more sexual partners is a symbol of status.  Furthermore, both young men and women see additional partners as a way to deal with the loneliness that results from being in long-distance relationships, which are quite common. And even when a couple lives together, the perception is that having additional partners means greater sexual satisfaction.

So, what to do?  Should we encourage youth to reassess need versus desire, even if this means attempting to change culture (especially those cultures that have historically promoted polygamy or that continue to)?  Do we teach youth to focus on finding new ways to get their needs met without additional partners? If so, maybe we should work on income-generating activities to help alleviate the need for sugar daddies, or teach communication skills so that youth can talk to their main partner about their sexual desires instead of going outside the relationship when they want to try something new.  Should we try to help youth have safer concurrent partnerships—ones in which they use a condom 100% of the time with every partner, even those they have been with for years?

Luckily, the power of field testing activities comes not only from learning what the fundamental questions are, but also from learning who might have the answers.  The youth in the field tests were actively engaged in answering the questions above for themselves.  And ultimately, it won’t be up to curriculum developers to determine the best way for youth to deal with these fundamental issues—the answers have to come from the youth themselves. Otherwise, how relevant and acceptable could these answers be?