Childhood sex is a subject that is frequently neglected or taboo. The social, moral and cultural attitudes and constructions attached to the subject have tended to either deny its existence or forbid it. The problematic situating of gender and childhood sexuality raises obstacles to the undertaking of research and inquiry that would lead to a better understanding and social engagement with childhood sexual identities and their vulnerability.

While abundant evidence of childhood sexual agency and desire exists, this evidence is seldom visible within the contexts of a healthy sexuality. The context of the high number of young girls who are casualties of gender violence and their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS is instead often alarmingly in the foreground as evidence of the need for sexuality education. The need for policy and action on childhood sexuality education was addressed by Kader Asmal as Minister of Education in 2002. Calling for multi-sectoral action to address sexuality challenges, he brought the subject fully into the public domain. Despite this initiative in the education sector (see Moult in this issue), the often negative construction of youth sexuality has had more weight, especially in the context of the law, with particular gender consequences. Notably, the Criminal Matters (Sexual Offences and other related matters) Amendment Act No 32 2007, which sought to regulate consensual underage sexual activity, has effectively criminalised normal sexuality and behaviour, and created a social panic instead of a platform for a legitimated childhood sexuality. Girls who already carry a heavy burden of gender discrimination when it comes to sexual abuse and rape cases have been worst affected by the stigmatisation of exposure to the criminal justice system.

This issue of Agenda brings into focus the conflicting positioning of childhood sexuality and its social consequences. The guest editors of the issue Jeanne Prinsloo and Relebohile Moletsane write “It is the recognition of the contradictions and contestations surrounding childhood as well as their implications that serves as the catalyst for the focus of this edition of Agenda on sex, gender and childhood”.