We're all breaking the sex law
Many of you are allowing your teenage children to break the law. Regularly. And I'm pretty sure they are simply following in your own criminal footsteps.
But I understand: in a world of contradictions you sometimes have to find your own way, even if it is against the law. Consider the following legislation:
- The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 says it is a crime if children between the ages of 12 and 16 take part in consensual sexual activity, including kissing and "petting". Under this law, both children may be charged with "statutory sexual violation or rape";
- Marriage laws state that from the ages of 12 (girls) and 14 (boys), teenagers can get married as long as they have the consent of the relevant parties; and
- The Children's Act 38 of 2005, Section 134 (1), says that, from the age of 12, a child must be provided with contraceptives on request.
So it's illegal for two 15-year-olds to kiss or have sex, but they can get married and be given contraception. In an alarming Orwellian twist, anyone aware of the consenting sexual activity has a duty to report it to the police.
Most parents don't know the law but they do have an idea as to when and how sexual activity should start, as I discovered when I asked a few friends. "Over my dead body. Not till she's 18." "I let my kid start a little gentle dating when she was 14. "
To which I say: Don't delude yourself that you're in control!
Many of you will never know exactly when your child starts fooling around. Dating happens in the shadows of teen and pre-adolescent life. You might catch a glimpse of it now and then, but you won't always know for sure.
The onset and nature of teenage dating is influenced by many things, including family values, beliefs and individual personality. But many parents are more worried about the effect of peer pressure and what's common practice in their local community. Rightly so. Today teenagers spend more time with their peers and less time with adults, which exposes them more to bad advice and risk-taking role models. If it's common for 13-year-olds to date or have sex in your community, then the chance of this behaviour increases for your child.
That's not to say you can't manage the situation effectively. Be involved in your child's lives from a young age. Make a point of getting to know your child's friends; pop in to meet parents when you drop them off at parties.
Lay down some rules before dating begins, so no one can say after the fact that they didn't know. Here are a few personal examples of rules, although I stress it is up to parents to define their own limits:
- A child must tell you where they're going, how they'll get there and who will be there;
- An adult you know and trust must be in overall supervision of arrangements;
- Don't take your teenager's word for everything. A little cautious suspicion is usually warranted. Some parents install tracking programmes on their children's cellphones to help locate them. (But do this with your child's knowledge);
- Monitor your teen's use of social networking;
- Start talking about sex, relationships and contraception when your children are young, adding more information along the way as they mature; and
- In the interests of common sense and good health, make sure your children know how and where to access contraception.
But to get back to the law. The constitutionality of laws criminalising consensual sexual activity between teens is being challenged in the High Court in Pretoria by the Teddy Bear Clinic and Rapcan (Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect), organisations that work with sexually abused children. They are not saying that children younger than 16 have a "right" to have sex.
In fact, they say there are good reasons to discourage children from having sex too young.
However, they say that criminalising consensual sexual exploration is not the correct way to go about protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse.
And it is certainly not going to stop teenagers from making mistakes, taking risks and making us parents crazy with worry.
- Ancer is a Johannesburg-based psychologist.