Decriminalising sex among consenting young people is a move in the right direction for South Africa, according to Professor Deevia Bhana.
She said teenage sexuality is often considered dangerous, undesired and stigmatised, creating panic and moral condemnation.
"This is the wrong focus as it leads to an underground sexual culture where teenagers hide, are discreet, and often deny sexual interests and activities," said Bhana who presented her study entitled “Sex, gender and money in African teenage conceptions of love in the HIV context" at UKZN’s Pubic Health Department on Wednesday.
Lacking accompanying support
The study was conducted among various contexts and with teenagers both rich and poor. It focuses on teenagers located in conditions of poverty and the ways in which they negotiate relationship dynamics and the social processes through which they give meaning to relationships and to sex.
"In contrast to adult-centric approaches to childhood sexuality, my research suggests that teenage men and women have interests in relationships and sex beyond simply the popular discourse of danger and disease," said Bhana.
Children are sexual beings and teenagers engage in and are motivated by sex, however, they lack the accompanying support for their health and sexual well-being, she said.
"The stigmatising of childhood sexuality has inadvertently increased the pressure on teenagers to engage with sex in a secretive manner, increasing the burdens related to teenage pregnancy, women’s vulnerability to HIV and violence within intimate partner relations."
Bhana, who is currently writing books on childhood sexuality in the primary school – as well as a co-edited collection focusing on gender and young families with specific attention to teenage mothers – has recently been appointed as the DST/NRF South African Research Chair on Gender and Childhood Sexuality.
Her research investigates children’s gendered and sexual meanings and ideologies in order to address and intervene in ways that secure sexual health, well-being and gender equality.
"We have tried far too long to deny childhood sexuality," cautioned Bhana. "For as long as we deny and stigmatise young people’s relationships and interest in sex and sexuality, we further entrench the problem and increase teenage vulnerability to pregnancy, HIV and violence," she said.
Bhana called for something new which permits an understanding of children beyond sexual ignorance.
"Supporting law which decriminalises sex among consenting young people is an advancement and a move in the right direction," she suggested.
According to Bhana, sexual debut is currently at around 14 years of age, but is declining.
"This presents both concerns and opportunities to face the issue head on in ways that are revolutionary. We cannot proceed to work with children as sexually ignorant because this has proved to be ineffective, outdated and it doesn’t come from the perspective of what young people want and do."