By Peter Espeut
We are an ambivalent society when it comes to matters sexual. At Independence in 1962, the age of consent for girls was 14. What Jamaican society was saying at Independence was that it was legal and allowable and quite acceptable for a grade nine girl to agree to have sexual intercourse with a man of any age. But not my daughter!
These were the days before the 'Family Planning' campaigns, and so is it reasonable to conclude that the social planners before Independence intended 14-year-old girls to begin to produce babies? Remember, also, that in 1962, the school careers of the vast majority of Jamaicans (boys and girls of the lower classes) ended at 14 years old after grade nine (in an elementary/all-age school).
Twenty-five years later, the school careers of the vast majority of Jamaicans ended after grade 11 (in secondary/high school), and in 1988 the Houses of Parliament raised the age of consent for girls from 14 to 16 years, and so it remains today.
The signal that Jamaican society is now sending is that it is legal and allowable and quite acceptable for a grade 11 girl to agree to have sexual intercourse with a man of any age; with the addition that now contraception (and abortion-producing devices like coils and morning-after pills) are widely accessible. Again, but not my daughter.
Why then do we consider teenage pregnancy (mostly among the lower classes) to be a social aberration, a social problem? Therein lies the ambivalence. We send the signal that it is OK for a 16-year-old to consent to sex, but if she gets pregnant, it is a problem. What we are then mandating is that she must take the necessary steps to avoid pregnancy.
The corollary is that having sexual intercourse with an underage girl, even if she gives the go-ahead, or even initiates it, is considered statutory rape, since the law determines that a girl under 16 is not competent to give sexual consent:
"Whosoever shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any girl being above the age of 12 years and under the age of 16 years shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years."
And so if a 16-year-old boy has sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, and they are caught, the boy is liable to be sent to jail for seven years if convicted, and the girl to be sent to a government-run 'place of safety'. Is this the intention of the law, or is it intended to deal with the big tough-back man taking advantage of a little girl? If the latter, why is such an offence only a misdemeanour? More ambivalence! Then again, these laws are enacted by men.
The 2008 Jamaica Reproductive Health Survey reports that the mean age at first sexual intercourse for females aged 15-17 was 14.4 years, and for females aged 18-19, it was 15.8. Therefore, the average Jamaican female under 16 years old (in the tens of thousands) should be in a government-run 'place of safety', and their partners (tens of thousands more) should be in jail, serving seven-year terms. Of course, most of these boys and girls will be from the lower classes.
Large numbers of Jamaicans disobey this law defining the legal age of consent, maybe even the majority. What does this mean? Should the law be changed (allowing young people to have sex at any age)? Or should it be strictly enforced (criminalising thousands of our young people)?
At the same time, there is currently in Jamaica an epidemic of child sexual abuse including incest, and of rape perpetrated by adults. Something is horribly wrong!
I'm not sure people are making the connection between child sexual abuse and values that promote sexual permissiveness. Persons who learn sexual self-control when they are young, and learn to take part in strong friendships with their peers, are less likely to abuse children. But sexual self-control is not part of Jamaican culture, as many dancehall songs and videos proclaim.
Let us be blunt. Those who wish to plan for a better Jamaica have to take a serious look at the sexual behaviour of Jamaican males - and females too! Who is going to teach our sons and daughters self-discipline - how to control their urges to eat, and drink, and to have more things, and to experience pleasure?
This is why the school guidance curriculum is so important. The health of our society depends upon it. We can't afford to produce another generation with 40 per cent personality disorder.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.