THE police and counsellors have a specific reason to express concern about the rising incidence of underage sex and its corollary, statutory rape. This is because statistics out last week showing a 70 per cent increase in prosecutions in the first half of the year would by definition understate the scale of the social pathology. There is just no known way of determining how widespread consensual sex between underaged teenagers or acts involving teenaged girls and older partners known to them have grown. It is only when parents and teachers come to know of these liaisons that police reports are made and prosecutions start. The problem is tricky in handling - in law enforcement and for teachers and people working in guidance counselling. Prosecutions numbered 37 in the first six months; the number, not big relatively speaking, almost certainly bears little relation to the true incidence. Teen pregnancy and exposure to sexual infections have risen.
Both police and counsellors acknowledge this is a societal trend, brought on by easy access to erotic material online and the propagation of enticing images via common vehicles of popular culture. Should Singapore take the stance that 'trends' should be left to exhaust themselves? Certainly not. This is not an issue that answers to how permissive or prissy a society is. Countries deemed liberal in sexual mores - Britain, for one - have uncompromising laws too. Rather, too-early sex simply is not recommended for a young person's psychological development and sexual health. It is a duty to discourage the habit.
In Singapore as elsewhere, the consensual aspect of the act tends to make law enforcement less effective, although an obvious necessity, than social censure in countering the trend. This is a different issue from one of sexual predation, like paedophilia. If laws can be made more effective to check underage sex, amendments are in order to make consenting underage girls liable to prosecution, not only the male partners. Is Singapore ready to take a step that militates against the universal principle of protecting young girls against debauchery? Even if they behave like Lolitas?
The case all this makes for systematic teaching of sexuality education in schools, from the primary years on, is compelling. The Education Ministry has no reason to be gun-shy on this score because some parents expressed unease on sex teaching, following the Aware controversy. Parents are appropriate as the first barrier against children's early experimentation in sex, but the willingness and capability demonstrated in this function is unconvincing. The load must still fall on schools.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.