Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy [to the] Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Faculty of Health Science, La Trobe University, Bundoora.
Youth culture, romantic relationships, dating, and sexual practices are uncharted territory in the social science literature on Nepal, most discussing sexual taboo. Such studies imply that young people are sexually repressed by traditional norms in a conservative society. Moving away from this assumption, which pervades international HIV prevention discourse, this study intends to examine the values, rationalities, behaviours and practices that structure young people’s understanding of their romantic relationships and sexual practices in their everyday lives. This study involves thematic analysis of forty-one interviews and four focus-group discussions with 16–20-year-old students in both private and government schools in Kathmandu in 2008. The data demonstrate that young people are using the idea of ‘modernity’ to legitimise their romantic relationships and sexual activities, although not many of them are actually sexually active. I argue that young people find a balance between modern and traditional values in the interpretation of self. Young people’s increasing access to a sexualised environment in Kathmandu and exposure to the media have put premarital relationships, dating practices and sex foremost in their minds. Even so, these have not become a priority in everyday life. The main finding in this study is that premarital relationships and sex are not casual affairs for young people, but tools through which they negotiate gender roles, freedom and a sense of self in order to become modern. They approach romantic relationships with caution, creatively justifying their behaviour while not necessarily defying family and social values. More than the repression of sexual desires, young people have multiple methods of making sense of existing sexual morals, developing new understandings and appropriating them into their lives with awareness. Young people’s constant negotiation of values that delay sexual initiation is as much about coping in an emerging new culture as it is about liberation from restrictive values. The empirical findings of this study in Nepal are important for culturally relevant HIV-prevention work among young people.
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