Judging by comments on talk shows and on Twitter, many adults – including many parents of adolescent children – do not have a healthy attitude towards sex. While they may engage in sexual activity, and while many presumably enjoy having sex, many adults seem to have internalised the Judeo-Christian belief that various forms of consensual sexual self-expression are “sinful”, “dirty”, “corrupting” and therefore something to be ashamed of and to keep secret. It is no surprise that such adults may support the criminalisation of their adolescent children’s sexual development to avoid talking to their children about sex. But, as the Constitutional Court recently found, the use of criminal law as a parenting tool in matters relating to the sexual development of teenagers is impossible to square with the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
In one of his most famous poems, the late English poet laureate Phillip Larkin (who never had any children himself) wrote:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats,/ Who half the time were soppy-stern/ And half at one another’s throats.”
Larkin, I take it, wanted to make the point that parents are not always well-equipped to guide their children into a well-adjusted adulthood. This is so because parents are often not particularly wise or well-adjusted: they may harbour old resentments from their own difficult childhoods and may carry with them some of the prejudices, blind-spots and insecurities inherited from their own parents. It is especially when children disappoint their parents by developing their own distinctive personalities – when they refuse to fulfil their parents’ dreams and expectations and act like the unique human beings that they are, with a will and personality of their own – that some parents lose the plot.
This may also be the case in matters relating to sexuality: some parents who themselves may be deeply ambivalent about sex (enjoying it but also half-believing that sex is potentially shameful) may find it hard to talk to their teenage children about sex. Such parents may well hope that the threat of criminal sanction would force their adolescent children to ignore their own developing sexual feelings and would stop their children from exploring their budding sexual feelings. Instead of reflecting on their own inherited attitudes about parenting and the manner in which their personal moral views might come in the way of raising their children to become well-adjusted and happy adults, they pin their hopes on the criminal law to absolve them of responsibility for the proper rearing of their children.
The hopes of such parents were dashed last week when the Constitutional Court, in a unanimous judgment authored by Sisi Khampepe, declared invalid sections 15 and 16 of the Sexual Offenses Act in Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and Another v Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Another.
The impugned sections criminalise consensual sexual intercourse between adolescents (between 12 and 16 ears of age) as well as other forms of physical contact between adolescents including petting, kissing and hugging. The Act states that in such cases both of the adolescents involved had to be prosecuted. The Act provides for a “close-in-age” defence to an adolescent who had been charged with petting, kissing and hugging, but not to an adolescent who had been charged with sexual intercourse with another adolescent. This means that where both the adolescents were children “and the age difference between them was not more than two years at the time of the alleged commission of the offence” they could not be prosecuted – but only in cases of petting, kissing and other non-intercourses related sexual contact.
The Constitutional Court found that these provisions infringed on the right of adolescents to dignity, privacy and the right to have their best interests treated as being of paramount importance.
Its findings were premised on the assumption “that children enjoy each of the fundamental rights in the Constitution that are granted to ‘everyone’ as individual bearers of human rights”. The Court views children as individuals – not as mere extensions of their parents – and the judgment therefore affirmed the need to value the choices that children make.
This means that children, too, must be treated like human beings, not merely like creatures on their way to acquiring free will and the status of fully human being. In discussing the right of children to have their dignity respected and protected, the Court affirmed that the dignity of a child is of special importance “and are not dependent on the rights of their parents”. The exercise by children of their dignity rights is not “held in abeyance until they reach a certain age”. This is so because:
“If a child is to be constitutionally imagined as an individual with a distinctive personality, and not merely as a miniature adult waiting to reach full size, he or she cannot be treated as a mere extension of his or her parents, umbilically destined to sink or swim with them…. Individually and collectively all children have the right to express themselves as independent social beings, to have their own laughter as well as sorrow, to play, imagine and explore in their own way, to themselves get to understand their bodies, minds and emotions, and above all to learn as they grow how they should conduct themselves and make choices in the wide social and moral world of adulthood.”
If you accept that children are also entitled to enjoy the right to have their dignity respected and protected, it must be clear that the criminalisation of consensual sexual conduct of children infringes on this right. It “is a form of stigmatisation which is degrading and invasive”.
“If one’s consensual sexual choices are not respected by society, but are criminalised, one’s innate sense of self-worth will inevitably be diminished. Even when such criminal provisions are rarely enforced, their symbolic impact has a severe effect on the social lives and dignity of those targeted.”
This is especially so because sections 15 and 16 of the Act criminalise a wide range of consensual sexual conduct between children: the categories of prohibited activity are so broad that they include much of what constitutes activity undertaken in the course of adolescents’ normal development.
“There can also be no doubt that the existence of a statutory provision that punishes forms of sexual expression that are developmentally normal degrades and inflicts a state of disgrace on adolescents. To my mind, therefore, the stigma attached to adolescents by the impugned provisions is manifest. When that individual is publicly exposed to criminal investigation and prosecution, it is almost invariable that doubt will be thrown upon the good opinion his or her peers may have of him or her.”
The Court employed similar reasoning to find that section 15 and 16 infringed on the right to privacy of affected adolescents and their right to have their best interests treated as being of paramount importance.
After all, the right to privacy is closely related to the notion of dignity as it recognises that we all have a right to a “sphere of private intimacy and autonomy which allows us to establish and nurture human relationships without interference from the outside community”.
“The way in which we give expression to our sexuality is at the core of this area of private intimacy. If, in expressing our sexuality, we act consensually and without harming one another, invasion of that precinct will be a breach of our privacy.”
The criminalisation of adolescent sexual activity would allow police officers, prosecutors and judicial officers to scrutinise and assume control of the intimate relationships of adolescents, “thereby intruding into a deeply personal realm of their lives”.
In my view these passages serve as an important “teaching moment” for parents. They challenge parents to form a closer and more authentic bond with their children, challenge them to listen to their children but also to guide them. The judgment asks parents not to treat children in an overly paternalistic manner and not as the property of parents or the state, but as individuals with unique needs and an ability to develop into well-adjusted adults – if only their caring parents, who respect their individuality, provide appropriate guidance to them.
This does not mean that anything goes. There may be legitimate reasons for limiting a child’s fundamental rights in particular circumstances, due to the stage of his or her development and in order to protect him or her. Legislation that infringes on the child’s right to dignity, privacy and the like could be justified in terms of the limitation clause if this limitation was reasonable. Such legislation would be reasonable if it genuinely protected children from harm and – in the present case – from the risks (including the risks of teenage pregnancy and psychological harm) associated with inappropriate sexual experimentation for which particular adolescents might not be prepared.
But the state had not provided the court with any evidence that the criminalisation of sexual activity between adolescents would in fact protect teenagers from harm. The expert evidence before the Court demonstrated that it was potentially healthy for teenagers to explore their sexuality, as long as such exploration was “conducted in ways for which the individual is emotionally and physically ready and willing.”
“What is of utmost importance is ensuring that children are appropriately supported by the adults in their lives, to enable them to make healthy choices. This is particularly so given the awkwardness and embarrassment children often feel when discussing sexual relations with adults. If children are not made to feel that there are safe environments within which they can discuss their sexual experiences, they will be stripped of the benefit of guidance at a sensitive and developmental stage of their lives.”
The impugned provisions did nothing of this sort. In fact the Court found that these provisions would exacerbate harm and risk to adolescents by undermining support structures, preventing adolescents from seeking help and potentially driving adolescent sexual behaviour underground. Moreover, the Act placed a duty on anyone to report contraventions of the Act to the Police, which would make adolescents less likely freely to communicate about sexual relations with parents and counsellors. These reporting provisions “create a rupture in family life and invite a breakdown of parental care by severing the lines of communication between parent or guardian and child”.
The criminal law is a drastic tool to address problems associated with inappropriate sexual activity of children. Children could be imprisoned because they engaged in heavy petting or kissing or in sexual intercourse. This they could have done because they were indeed emotionally ready to engage in the activity or because their parents had not guided them appropriately to make correct choices about their sexual development. The provisions would potentially expose children to trauma and to the harsh effects of the criminal justice system. And while the Court does not say so, this might occur because of the absence of appropriate guidance and advice by parents too ashamed to talk to their children about sex or too reliant on the criminal law to do the parenting on their behalf.
In this case the state provided no evidence that the criminalisation of adolescent sexual activity would actually serve the purpose of protecting children from the physical and psychological risks of inappropriate sexual experimentation. While caring guidance from parents would empower adolescents to make the correct choices about their sexual development, it is unclear how the enforcement of the criminal law would achieve the same result. As the Court pointed out:
“We have before us no evidence at all to demonstrate that adolescents may be deterred by sections 15 and 16 from engaging in sexual conduct and thus avoid the risks associated with engaging in sexual activity at a young age. Rather, the evidence we do have before us is to the contrary. It shows that the impugned provisions increase the likelihood of adolescents participating in unsafe sexual behaviour and therefore actually increase the materialisation of the associated risks.”
Where legislation cultivates a society in which adolescents are precluded from having open and frank discussions about sexual conduct with their parents and caregivers they would be put at more risk and would not be protected at all. Rather than deterring early sexual intimacy, the provisions merely drive it underground, far from the guidance that might otherwise be provided by parents, guardians and other members of society.
The evidence put before the Court also indicated that the criminalisation of adolescent sexual activity would in fact disempower caregivers and institutions in dealing with adolescents. This is so because parents and caregivers cannot promote behaviour that the provisions have deemed illegal and further because, in the course of attempting to provide guidance and assistance, they may well be told intimate information which they will be obliged to report to the authorities.
The judgment serves as a clarion call to parents to prove Phillip Larkin wrong, to demonstrate that they are willing to treat their children like human beings, that they are parents who are capable of learning from their parents’ mistakes and that they care enough about their children not to try and outsource their parenting to the criminal justice system. DM
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon