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Why the age of consent should be equal for all

Double standards: The British government has proposed changing the laws on sex between men under 18. Back home in South Africa, the anomalies remain unchanged

Zackie Achmat

THE unequal age of sexual consent in South Africa (16 for hetero-sexuals, 19 for lesbian and gay youths) places unjust, irrational and arbitrary burdens on lesbian and gay youths.

In the stormy years of adolescence and young adulthood, romance, courting and, for some youths, sex form an integral part of personality development. Criminalisation, stigma and discrimination deny lesbian and gay youths the right to enjoy romance, courting and sex.

The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a body with 75 affiliates nationally, calls for an equal age of consent – at 16 years for all youths. It deserves the support of all South Africans, but especially child welfare and youth rights organisations.

An age of consent is both necessary and desirable. But there is no reasonable justification for the retention of an unequal age of consent. An age of consent, coupled with information and knowledge on sexuality, safer sex, as well as real educational and employment opportunities, provides youths with the space to make their own informed choices.

There is, therefore, only one good thing to say about the content, style and tone of Angella Johnson’s interview with Kevin Bishop (“The man who loves to love boys”, June 27 to July 3): it has compelled us to discuss childhood sexuality, sexual orientation and the age of consent.

Bishop’s campaign on behalf of the North American Man Boy Love Association parasitically links the struggle of lesbian and gay people for equality with paedophilia (“scratch a homosexual and you will find a paedophile”).

Lesbian and gay people have historically been defamed as child molesters. It is that image which Bishop reinforces. In fact, his campaign only assists the reactionary and conservative right wing in its slander and dirty tricks against lesbian and gay people.

Currently, at least two lesbian and gay families are battling for custody of and access to their children in the courts. Countless others live in fear of losing their children. The image of homosexual child molestation is central to arguments denying access and unrestricted custody to lesbian and gay parents.

To stampede the country into a moral panic about sexual abuse will not eradicate the underlying causes of child abuse. These need to be addressed holistically through development, education and an application of the criminal law.

Paedophilia is not linked to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or heterosexual identity. Paedophilia or the systematic promotion of “consensual” sex with children is a condition in which domination over children is central to the sexual relationship.

The power of children is structurally limited by age, physical and mental development, income and material resources. The exploitation of the limited choices available to children is abusive.

The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality will not accept any paedophile organisation into its ranks. By consciously excluding Bishop and his friends we exercise our right to freedom of association.

The genuine discrimination faced by lesbian and gay youths and lesbian and gay parents is central to our struggle for equality. It is part of the struggle for equality by all South Africans.

Promoting the dignity, autonomy, privacy and the socio-economic rights of all children with adequate access to information and education is central to eliminating child abuse.

— Zackie Achmat is the convenor of the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality

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