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Teen sex is a reality

- By Buhle Zuma


Parliament’s decision in June 2015 to decrease the age of consensual sex in children aged between 12 and 15 years has been met mainly with public condemnation. Historians, child rights organisations and social researchers have welcomed the decision to legalise sex between this age group.  

Panellists at a recent Wiser seminar titled: Consent, Rights and the Regulation of Childhood and Adolescent Sexuality in South Africa, have also unanimously agreed that the denial of children as sexual beings does not protect them. In fact, this leaves them more vulnerable to risky sexual behaviour, HIV/Aids, unplanned pregnancies and exploitation.

Professor Deevia Bhana, whose presentation focussed on the dynamics of children’s gendered and sexual culture, said children, whether they are six or 18, are sexual beings and have a capacity for sexual feelings.

Bhana’s claim is based on 17 years of research with children of different classes and race in which she discovered that sexuality is very much a part of children’s lives. However, children conceal their sexuality because of fear of reprisal from adults.

 “Children are sexual agents and sexual beings with rights and they are not waiting for these rights to be conferred on them but exercising these rights under the gaze of childhood innocence” argued Bhana.

“These rights are not simply enacted but they are resisted, they are negotiated, they are accommodated and rejected by not only adults but children themselves (who) are highly sophisticated in how they assess their social positioning in the adult-child ranking,” she asserted.

According to Bhana and panel members, denying that children, even as young as six, experience sexual feelings is denying the responsibility of adults to empower children with relevant information.

“Our obsession with the idea that children are innocent is denying the opportunity to really understand what is happening in the lives (sexuality) of children,” she said.

Bhana was quick to clarify that advocating for childhood sexuality is not the same as encouraging early sex.  

Christianity  increased out-of-wedlock pregnancies

Sarah Duff, a historian at Wiser, pointed out that society has not always been so conservative when it comes to adolescent sex. History shows that society was liberal with sexual rights and these contained many of the challenges in contemporary society.

According to Duff, Christianity brought about significant changes in the ways African children and young people learnt about sex.

Before Christianity, African communities weaved sex education into processes as a person shifted from childhood to youth to adulthood. The act of ukuhlobonga or ukusoma (thigh sex), was traditionally sanctioned and allowed young lovers to experiment with ‘outercourse’.

“These customs changed as missionaries established schools in African communities. Missionaries frowned on premarital sex, open discussion of sex and sexuality and initiation schools.”

The destruction of African customs by Christianity had unintended consequences.

According to Duff, African Christian converts showed higher incidents of pregnancies “compared to so called traditionalists” leading to the church introducing its own form of sexual education in the 1920s.

Duff further argued that the debate around the age of consent is an old battle.

In 1893, the Cape Colony raised the age of consent for girls from 12 to 14 years for white girls and this was extend to African girls only in 1905. Another piece of legislature raised the age of consent to 16 years in 1910, said Duff. Listen to Duff.

Regulation of sexual rights places young women at risk

Research shows that young people hide “their relationships in order to comply with the moral framework where sexuality or sexual activity is regarded as wrong and abstinence was promoted,” said Nolwazi Mkhwanazi from the Wits Anthropology Department.

A consequence of surface compliance is that young women are afraid to seek contraceptives leading to the risk of contracting STIs and HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies terminated at illegal facilities.

“There is evidence that gains made in the first ten years of democracy are gradually being eroded and that the country’s poor women are no better off than they were when the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act was promulgated,” added Mkhwanazi.

She continued that “while statistics say the rate of teen pregnancies declining even among black women. Other trends that are emerging that are of concern”.

“These include the haphazard implementation of legislation, the increasing number of women turning to illegal termination and the overwhelming number of agents pointing to the normalisation of sexual and gender-based violence in relationships”.

Panellists and participants were in agreement that the change in law which resulted in the legalisation of consensual sex among children, is a positive step in entrenching the rights of children to access information and reproductive health services.

Duff concluded that society is hankering for a past that never was.

“Our definitions of childhood and youth have changed over time and place; our understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour has changed. The idea that no one discussed sexuality is not true. To try to return to a desexualised past is to try to return to an invention.”

Youth friendly services

Zane Dangor, Advisor to the Minister of Social Development said government services are 'rights'driven, the changes to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill which recognises sex between children aged 12 and 15, provides an impetus for government to  strengthen formal sex education at school and provide youth friendly services.

Dangor said Social Development is working with other government departments to introduce a Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme, to be incorporated into the life orientation curriculum at schools.

“The cornerstone of our strategy is to address the issue of responsible childhood sexual activity. The onus is on adults to educate children. We need to inculcate their rights and responsibilities as sexually active citizens. Denial of childhood sexuality and failure of sexual socialisation is at the root of children fearing opening up to adults, and not seeking help or advice from the appropriate sources. But we cannot do this alone. Youth educators, health practitioners, parents and caregivers all need to be more accessible and accountable.”

The debate held on 15 July 2015 was facilitated by Lisa Vetten, an activist and honorary research associate at Wiser.

External media coverage

The Birds and the Bees, NorthCliff Melville Times

Poll: 12 to 15 year olds can have sex, Randburg Sun

Consensual sex law welcomed, The Star

Kids are sexual being with rights, The Star

Church controls sexuality, The Star

New child sex law set to stop teen girls becoming scapegoats, The Star