Opinionista Christina Nomdo 19 June 2015

Teen sex: Much ado about nothing?

The Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services processes on the reform of the sexual offences law saw some sensational headlines, with one focus area being the decriminalisation of consensual sexual acts between adolescents 12 to 16 years. There was no shortage of controversy in the media. So what exactly happened and, more importantly, what should happen next?

In the end, perhaps surprisingly, there was not much divergence of views on the core issues at stake amongst those who believe in a constitutional democracy. Yes, the process had the highs and lows of a Shakespearian play, but in the end, using the rule of law and principles of participation, civil society and lawmakers found lots of common ground.

A particular low in public hearings was when human rights defenders were called ‘agents of Satan’ and ‘forces of darkness’, following their rights-based approach to law-making. However, we consoled ourselves with the fact that the accusers were also willing to attack the freedoms in our Constitution that the people of this country fought for and that we were trying so hard to defend, such as the right to privacy and the right to dignity. Clearly they had a different agenda for society that South Africans would never agree to. Could we go backwards now and give up our Constitutional principles of equality and the related freedoms of expression that are the bedrocks of our society? I believe most people in South Africa would find that hard to do.

There were plenty of highs – robust debate between law makers and citizens, an insistence that this was a societal matter and all must be given an opportunity to air their views, and most encouragingly, one presentation after another; committee deliberations reiterating that we did not want to make criminals of our children.

The proposed amendments to the Sexual Offences Act does not lower the age of consent from 16, it only seeks to decriminalise adolescents of similar ages (between 12 and 16) who express their sexuality with their peers. Criminalisation, stigmatisation and shaming adolescents have had very dire consequences – we have recently learnt of Christina, the girl in the Jules High School case, who committed suicide. This is the sobering reality of how making adolescents into criminals for this kind of behaviour can affect their lives.

After the portfolio committee process, finally we seemed to be reaching consensus about the core issues and the course of action to be taken to remedy the broken law. On 27 May 2015, the amendment bill was voted on and passed by the portfolio committee, and the National Assembly debate was conducted on 17 June 2015. The amendment bill passed with no objections from any political party.

So for all South Africans who were not as privileged as we were to attend the public hearings, let’s see how far off we were from your personal views on the subject of adolescent sexuality.

As with any self-help test, here are the issues below, with the option to select yes, no or maybe:

  1. The age of consent should remain unchanged at 16;
  2. It is not desirable to have adolescents engage in sex at a young age;
  3. Criminalising adolescents could have a devastating effect on them;
  4. Adolescents need good advice from adults about sexuality;
  5. Parents and caregivers, supported by their faith-based institutions, should be the ones to guide adolescent values;
  6. Government should support parents and caregivers to fulfil their duty.

No matter how many “yes”, “no’s” or “maybe’s” you expressed, this is a litmus test of sorts in relation to how comfortable you are with the issues of sex and sexuality. If the test made you uncomfortable to even think about, let alone broach the subject with your own teens, you are in the majority. Very few people are comfortable with issues of sexuality in South Africa – especially adolescent sexuality. We prefer to deny it exists or perhaps find solace in the belief that sexuality is taboo. So we are more comfortable issuing well-meaning but unhelpful advice such as ‘wait until you are married’. When we do this, we are absolving ourselves of our responsibility to support and guide our children in the most effective way.

We are afraid that sharing information will lead to promiscuity. This is akin to believing that a kiss causes pregnancy. In fact, the evidence suggests that the more information that we provide to our adolescents, the higher the chances they will not engage in risky behaviour. So we must find ways and courage to be pioneers, even if we have no models of how to do this because our parents were unable to talk to us too.

The best place to start would be to build a relationship of trust and open communication with our children and provide a home environment that is conducive to their wellbeing. This is half the battle won. Then, in relation to sexuality education, my rule of thumb is if they are old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to know the answer. However, remember to provide age- and stage-appropriate answers. Answer with a simple response; if they want more information, you have established the relationship and they are assured that they will receive the answers.

Then all you have to do is keep this going through their adolescent years, assuring them they can speak to you about anything without expecting judgement but fulfilling their expectation for honest information. Through the same robust engagement and principles of participation that Parliament modelled, you will have the opportunity to be truly influential in your adolescent’s life and will be a major reason why they delay sexual debut and refrain from risky sexual behaviour. Go on, you can do it. DM

* Christina Nomdo is Executive Director of Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN)


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