Awareness and maturity, not so much the age, play a significant role in helping a teenager decide what's good for him/ her.

Although, we have evolved in many ways as a nation, when it comes to sex and sexuality, we rarely fail to get our knickers in a twist. In the last fortnight or so, much controversy has been generated around the age of consent for sexual activity and whether consensual sexual exploratory activity between teenagers should be considered acceptable or not. At the heart of the debate is the issue of “informed” consent. Put differently, if they say “yes” to sex, do adolescents really understand what this would imply? And even if they did understand the implications, are they consenting because they really want to, or because they feel compelled to, in view of changing social mores and peer-pressure?

In our country, up until the middle of the 20th century, by the time a girl celebrated her 16th birthday, she was likely married and probably had at least one child. Obviously the belief was that rather than letting teenage hormones take them down forbidden paths, marriage would be the more appropriate soil for their oats to be sowed.

Although teenage marriages do take place even now in some parts of the country, by and large, the age at marriage has progressively increased, (by law it's 18 for women and 21 for men), leaving teenagers to deal with their oats in other ways. And herein lies the fundamental issue. Is a teenager less than 18 years of age (the age until which one is still considered a child as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) in a position to give informed consent to sexual activity?

Perhaps a good starting point to explore this issue is the age at onset of puberty, when a girl or a boy attains reproductive age. There is little disagreement that pubertal age has progressively decreased over the years. Since it's more difficult to date the precise onset of puberty for boys, the age at which a girl has her first menstrual period is generally more frequently studied.

Age effects

While a study in 1980 in Punjab showed that the average pubertal age for girls (the age at which a girl has her first menstrual period) was 14.31, a more recent one in Uttarakhand in 2010, revealed that girls were attaining puberty at an average age of 13.6. Interestingly, girls from the plains were doing so much earlier (13.2) than those from the hills (14.2).

Another study from Midnapore in 2007 found that more than half of the girls who were studied had their first period between the ages of 11 and 13.

However, knowledge of puberty, sex and reproduction was very poor in this group, which raises the frightening possibility of young bodies that are reproductively mature, but minds that are not necessarily emotionally or intellectually mature enough to understand the implications of sex and sexuality, thereby leaving them extremely vulnerable to sexual predators and certainly rendering them incapable of making an “informed” decision on sexual matters.

However, older teenagers (those between 16 and 18) are certainly more “informed” about the implications and consequences of sexual activity, for their levels of exposure are sometimes frighteningly high. But the question is, is this enough? Most parents would think not, for in our country we still do believe that sex and marriage are inextricably inter-linked. That said, it also needs to be understood that marriage doesn't ensure that sex is responsible and mature. The most common issues during the first years of marriage, centre around — as any couple therapist will tell you — anxiety, concern and discomfiture related to sex. So, it's not as if marital sex is necessarily more “mature” than pre-marital sex, and although no hard data exists, non-consensual marital sex is also a significant issue in many marriages.

To me it appears, that the age of consent debate has less to do with sex, but more with awareness and maturity that makes an “informed” decision possible. While post-pubertal children often have some knowledge about sex and sexuality, sometimes more than many married couples, what they don't quite full understand is the concept of sexual dignity. They need to be provided with the tools to understand that saying “no” to sex, if they are not yet ready or comfortable, is not merely acceptable, but desirable. And this learning can only happen when the parents are comfortable enough to talk about sexuality and sexual choices with them. Merely saying that they are too young for it, is simply not going to cut it. Nor is saying that it's against the law.

Define it

We do need to get our heads around the fact that some form of sexual exploration is inevitable during the post-pubertal period, whether we set the age of consent at 16, 18 or any other number. I do appreciate that for a variety of reasons, both legal and social, we do need to define an age of consent. And, I am pragmatic enough to realise that whatever age is chosen, it will always be an arbitrary number. For, it's not as if on one's 16th or 18th birthday one is possessed of a sudden maturity to take decisions that one was incapable of the previous day. However, if we teach our adolescents how to respect their sexual dignity as well as that of others, then consent can be much more informed than it currently is.

vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com

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