Ever heard of the “30cm rule”? This unwritten rule is popular in many co-ed high schools and it stipulates that a boy and a girl should not be closer than 30cm of each other. That means no hugging, kissing and gevoefeling while under the watchful eye of teachers. The students I teach have also been informed about the rule. It seems that the state also has a version of the 30cm rule: the Sexual Offences Act. Also known as “a bad idea”.
Many writers have explained why this is a bad idea and my interest on the matter will not be rehashing the debate. Rather, my thoughts about the idea of criminalising teenage consensual sex began when I started to question the rationale behind the Sexual Offences Act. The debate has been raging since 2010 (if not before) and has surfaced once again. The Act seems to be a response to the alarming statistics on teenage pregnancy but more overtly, a need to control teenagers and their sexuality.
The one side of the argument for decriminalising consensual sex among teenagers states that kids need to be educated about sex in environments that are non-threatening and access healthcare that will enable them to protect themselves. Schools are seen as one of the spaces where this education can be effective (if it isn’t happening already). Life Orientation (LO) is a compulsory subject in schools and in the Grade 8 curriculum, teenagers are being taught about sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and of course ABC-Abstain, Be faithful, Condomise! I taught LO to Grade 9s last year and the sex question always came up (in spite of the curriculum focus being about careers, writing a CV and learning about other religions). Teenagers are curious about sex and they are exploring their sexuality but instead of recognising this natural progression, the law attempts to control it.
The concern with teenagers and their sexuality is nothing new. What is new and perhaps worrying is the alarmist response to teenage pregnancy which seems to prove the need to control teenagers and their sex lives. Teenage pregnancy has been with us since antiquity but where teenage pregnancy has implications for state resources and state intervention (through the child support grant for example) we have invented the idea that teenage pregnancy is a problem therefore sex is a problem worthy of being lumped together with other criminal offences.
The secondary discourse to this issue has been that parents have abdicated responsibility and are no longer guiding their children when it comes to sex. Children no longer come from safe homes and communities where adults care enough to “parent” them. This is very problematic: why should the scourge of teenage pregnancy be coupled with a breakdown in family structure? This idea perpetuates the notion that children in “normal” homes (read as white, middle-class with heterosexual parents) are not the problem. Rather, it is children who come from poor families and depend on the state for child grants that need to be controlled. This is not to deny the complexities and the hardships experienced by teenagers in poor homes and the currency their sexuality has in a context of transactional sex.
Therefore if the state wants to reduce/control the number of people who depend on the child support grant, it must control their sexual activities. This Act also has implications for the gender question because teenage girls are the ones whose bodies are being policed, they will carry the burden of the “criminal act” should they fall pregnant. If this is a response to the teen-pregnancy-gevaar then the government has to think of another plan to address this rather than policing young people.
Adolescent sex is therefore a problem. A problem that is intricately linked to how society has conceptualised “the teenager” — a problem that must be managed and controlled rather than a teenager being an individual that can make rational choices. The focus on the act is narrow-minded hence the obsession of implementing a law rather than seriously considering the complexity of being young and having to make decisions about sexuality. It’s too easy to implement a law hoping that teenagers will curb their curiosity because this will not happen.
If this law is taken seriously, as a teacher I would be in a quandary if I was expected to report children who showed suggestive behaviour. For starters, the Grade 10 couple that I find outside my classroom door every morning would be the first to go if I was expected to take the act seriously. The law is counter-intuitive, we want teens to behave responsibly when having sex — why make them criminals?