Teen sex: why experts and public disagree

2013-02-21 10:25

It is an intellectually numbing experience to trawl through the public reaction to the recent High Court ruling that found sections of the Sexual Offences Act constitutionally invalid.

From the usual nasty bigotry (“now all the poor children will fall pregnant to access the Child Support Grant”), to genuine concern that the law is giving licence to children to have sex, the public outcry stands in contrast to the exuberant welcome from most children’s rights and sexual health experts.

Even popular talk show host Eusebius McKaiser, who usually gets on well with his callers, stood “practically accused of being an immoral pervert” for his support of Judge Rabie’s elegant and well-reasoned judgment. He tells me off air that he was getting it from all sides: “From blacks, whites, poor and rich.”

The sections of the Act under review in effect criminalised most types of consensual sexual contact between teenagers, making furtive adolescent petting behind the school toilets a punishable offence and obliging all adults who knew of it to report it to the police.

Quite rightly, the judge found that “to subject intimate personal relationships to the coercive force of criminal law is to insert state control into the most intimate area of adolescents’ lives”. Almost all the experts agreed on this point.

But, like on so many issues in our society, there is a worrying division between expert and public opinion.

While there are many non-experts who understand that the ruling is a victory for children and their parents, their opponents are shouting much louder.

In loveLife’s affidavit supporting the Teddy Bear Clinic and Rapcan case, we outlined our reasons for why the law needed to change. Now that the Constitution has prevailed, our concern has shifted. If ordinary citizens are not supportive of that change, we will have missed the opportunity as a nation for a very valuable conversation. With all the energy and intelligence that went into the legal battle, we need to mount the longer and more difficult social one.

Why were so many people opposed to the ruling? Why did legislators, during a ground-breaking, progressive, and well-intentioned legislative process, insert what Judge Rabie called “absurd” provisions criminalising teenage sexuality?

We recently held focus group discussions with parents in five provinces to try to understand their perspectives on parenting, and the challenges that they face.

We know from other research that open and early discussion of sex, sexuality, and relationships is protective against HIV infection and teenage pregnancy among young people. We wanted to know what the barriers to these conversations were, and how we might overcome them.

Parents reported to us they feel as if they aren’t educated enough to discuss sexuality with their children, who learn more in school and through the media than their elders were ever taught. Their children have access to technology that they, as parents, can neither understand nor control.

What was mentioned frequently was the difference in language between parent and child: the failure to communicate seems partly a result of not having a shared idiom within which to talk about sex, sexuality, and relationships.

They find that their children, growing up in the age of universal human rights, display such a keen understanding of their own entitlements that they cannot give their parents the kind of respect parents feel they ought to be shown.

Parents also reported that their own ability to support their children was assailed on all sides by absent co-parents, demanding work schedules, and poverty.

They find they can no longer rely on the extended family structures they grew up in, which are under immense strain, especially in our country’s most marginalised communities; they feel under-equipped, disrespected in general, and alienated from the young people they are expected to parent.

The way they described their response to this situation is also interesting: out of frustration and guilt, they adopt particular parenting styles, which we’ve adapted from Nancy Darling’s parenting model.

“Authoritarian” parents under pressure make stricter rules, get angrier, and implement harsher punishments. They shout at their children. This only makes the reaction of their empowered children more negative. Their further rebellion might push parents to give up in frustration, adopting the “neglectful” style.

You can see these styles quite clearly in the motivation of the legislators and the opponents of the ruling. In response to the perception that adolescents are out of control, they implement stricter punishments. They shout more, they send in the police. Many try very hard before giving up, effectively surrendering their roles as parents to the state.

Underlying all of this is the remarkably resilient notion that this generation of children is the worst ever. It is almost comical to hear middle-aged people repeating the same apocalyptic assertions about the new generation that their parents pronounced about theirs, and their parents before them, back into history for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. And yet the world not only keeps on turning, but more people move out of poverty, and we live longer lives, and fight fewer wars.

To narrow the gap between public and expert opinion, we need to address the very real fears of parents with capacity-building, communication, and social-change initiatives, to promote a style of parenting Darling calls “authoritative”. Reasoned legal argument is not going to get us there. While it is tempting to throw up your hands at parents who want the law to do their parenting for them, it’s a better strategy to try to understand their desperation, and improve their ability to assume the role of the loving, authoritative parent.

» loveLife offers counselling and support to parents who want to talk to their adolescents about sex, sexuality, and relationships. Just call 0800 121 100 or send a Please Call Me to 083 323 1023.

» Burnett is a programme director at loveLife

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