Teens have sex. Get over it

I was very surprised when I read that the Constitutional Court is debating whether to allow the prosecution of teenagers for consensual sexual activity. I was surprised because I'd been under the impression that those particular parts of the Sexual Offences Act had been thrown out ages ago.

These laws highlight a deeply troubling hypocrisy. If two 14-year-olds engage in consensual sex there is a chance under current law that they'll be charged with raping each other! This is supposedly done to protect "children" because they are not mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

But if a 14-year-old stabs someone or steals a car they will most definitely be prosecuted, and may even be tried as an adult. This is done because it is believed that 14-year-olds are mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

The state can't have it both ways, and it's trying to. And this disjunction only makes sense if one realises that these laws are not intended to protect "children", but are only intended to control them. It's the state attempting to legislate away the act of being a teenager. Clearly legislators have forgotten what it was like to be one, and that the easiest way to get many teens to do something is to tell them that they're not allowed to.

There are other problems too. The state's claim that what it is doing is for the "child's own good" illustrates a fundamental flaw in our thinking: we call everyone below the age of 18 a child. We act as if six-year-olds and 16-year-olds are the same animal, when those of us who work with them know that they often seem like different species.

With these teen-sex laws, the state apparently claims to save children from themselves. This assumes there is something wrong with young people engaging in age-appropriate sexual experimentation. There isn't.

Human beings engage in various forms of sexual exploration throughout their lives, starting at about the age of four, when they play "doctor". This is normal and natural and lays the foundation for one's sexual identity.

Indeed, one of the reasons why sexual abuse of children is harmful is because it interrupts this process and imposes the adult's sexuality on the child, robbing the child of the opportunity to develop an identity that is authentically his or her own.

But the fact that adult sexual contact with children is bad does not mean that children do not have a sexual aspect to their lives. It is not unusual for children to begin masturbatory behaviour before the age of 10, and the median age for first coitus in sub-Saharan Africa is about 14. We can argue about whether this is a bad thing, but the fact is that it's happening and seems unlikely to change.

Abstinence programmes record very few successes and often make things worse. In the United States millions of dollars were spent on ­promoting abstinence; research

suggests that this only managed to delay sex by about six months. Worse, the teens involved were far less likely to use condoms. In the US example, this was because they'd been lied to about the effectiveness of condoms – but by demonising teenage sexuality we make it more difficult for teenagers to get protection and information about how to use it.

If a 14-year-old boy goes to buy condoms, both he and the cashier will know that he is intending to do something illegal. Many will simply forgo the condom, get their partner pregnant, and pick up HIV along the way. We need to make condom use more popular, not less.

And the idea that we can stop normal sexual experimentation merely by shaking a legislative fist is irrational. Unless we cloister every teen in the country in a series of monasteries, they are going to find ways to have sex (although the gay teens in those monasteries will be having a field day). Did the apartheid government's pogroms against homosexuals stop them from having sex? Legislating away teenage sexuality is going to be even less effective.

Lastly, the entire enterprise is based on a flawed premise: the idea that we, "the grown-ups", have the right to decide for teenagers what they should be doing with their bodies. But we don't, and nor should we. These are their decisions and they have to make them. Of course many of them will do things that they regret. Many grown-ups do those same things just as often.

Adults have a huge problem with the idea of teenagers having sex. But that is their problem, not the teens'.

Andrew Verrijdt is a psychologist and writer.

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