The high road or the low road?
Never before in my 60-odd years can I recall a Child Month being celebrated in the context of so many children being kidnapped, sexually abused, prostituted and murdered. The victims are usually girl children, and the perpetrators usually adult men. Has something gone wrong? Or have we sown to the wind and reaped the whirlwind?
Never before has Child Month been celebrated with so much uncertainty about acceptable values and attitudes about sex and sexuality, and so many contradictory messages and signals.
On the one hand, there are those promoting 'sexual rights' for children - that children must be free to have sexual intercourse if they wish to; and then there are those who are scandalised when children become sexually active in grades seven and eight.
There are those who want to give underage children contraceptives like condoms; and there are those who are outraged when underage girls get pregnant. There are those who wish to promote abstinence among young people until marriage; and there are those who want to facilitate legal abortions for those with inconvenient pregnancies.
What kind of Jamaica do we want for ourselves and our children? There is a clear disconnect between what many believe should happen, and what actually happens when it comes to sex. Christian doctrine is clear that sexual intercourse should be postponed until marriage, but the fact is that about 80 per cent of all children in Jamaica are born out of wedlock, according to the Jamaica Reproductive Health Survey of 2002-2003, the mean age at first sexual intercourse for boys was 13.5, and 15.8 for girls. Because these are averages, about as many were having sex below these ages as those above.
Let's face it! Be honest in this Child Month: More than half of Jamaican children are sexually active; most of the children having sex are under the age of consent.
According to the same survey, the adolescent fertility rate in Jamaica is the highest among nations in the English-speaking Caribbean at 112 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. About 40 per cent of Jamaican women have given birth at least once before they reach the age of 20.
Despite the fact that Jamaican girls can marry (with their parents' consent) as early as 16 years old, the average age at which Jamaican women marry is 33.2 years old; and relatively few women marry at all.
Actual sexual practice in Jamaica is far different from the standards we have set for ourselves.
This means that after more than 200 years of missionary activity in Jamaica since slavery days, the Christian Church has failed to convince more than a small minority of Jamaicans to conform their lives to Christian sexual values.
How do we respond, as a society, to these facts?
Because of our clear failure, do we abandon the standards we have set for ourselves? Some people clearly are of this view. Since children are having sex (they say), and nothing we say to them will change their behaviour, we must distribute condoms and other contraceptives in schools in the hope that pregnancy can be avoided.
But when pregnancies occur (they say), we must make provisions for state medical facilities to kill the foetuses before they are born. I believe this whole approach takes the low road.
we have failed
If we want to take the high road, we have to first admit that we have failed in the task of social re-engineering, and we have to redouble our efforts to socialise young (and old) Jamaicans in appropriate sexual values and attitudes.
We conduct studies to determine WHAT the sexual behaviour of Jamaican youth is, but we do not sufficiently understand WHY they do what they do. It is no surprise that strategies for youth behavioural change in sexual matters have failed if we do not understand the mechanisms involved.
Why do men abuse young girls? Do we understand the source of the dysfunction? Is it incomplete or inadequate socialisation because of broken families or poor examples from their teachers in school? Has the socialisation of young people been left to the peer group or the Internet?
Is the main cause poverty - the fact that girls from impoverished backgrounds are particularly susceptible to the advances of men with cash or goodies in hand? Has transactional sex been taken to a new and higher (or lower) level?
In sociological theory, the function of the family is production and reproduction; and society needs to channel sexual activity in functional directions. For many, sexual intercourse is for recreation (pleasure) rather than for procreation. The modern values of hedonism and individualism seem to be in the ascendancy. Is this what we want? Do we want to take the low road?
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and theologian. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.