Historical essay
Race, Sex Education, and the Age of Consent in South Africa

Race, Sex Education, and the Age of Consent in South Africa

One of the best and most unexpected perks of researching the history of sex education in South Africa is receiving the occasional invitation to talk or write about my work. At the end of last year, I presented a lecture to a group of clever, articulate young women at the University of Johannesburg who were interested in how history could be used to bust myths about sex and sexuality in contemporary South Africa. I had no difficulty at all in convincing my audience that sex education can be a feminist project. As publications such as Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970) and movements around the world to educate women and girls about sex, contraception, and their reproductive organs have shown since the early twentieth century, sexual knowledge can be a powerfully liberatory force.

Women in a crowd hold up a sign that says WOMEN UNITE, and Our Bodies, Ourselves is written in red across the bottom.
Cover of the 1973 version of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which has been reprinted and expanded several times over the decades. (© Our Bodies, Ourselves)

But this liberation has always been complicated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is particularly so in South Africa, where formal sex education has long been racialized. Of course, sex education has been used around the world as a tool of social engineering: it attempts to inculcate the kinds of sexual behaviors that policy makers, educators, health professionals, clergy, and social reformers desire for the future. In South Africa, sex education was used both to construct and reinforce racial boundaries and police sexual behavior during the segregationist (1910-1948) and apartheid (1948-1994) eras, as well as by liberation movements in the 1980s and 1990s seeking to remake gender relations in a post-apartheid nation.

Put another way, sex education could provide the means for young people — and particularly girls — to make decisions over their reproductive lives, but it was also put to use in the marginalization and even criminalization of black people and those with non-normative sexual identities. The debates over girls’ sexuality and sex education within South Africa’s nascent feminist movement in the early twentieth century illustrates particularly well sex education’s power both to liberate and (literally) to disenfranchise.

In 1911 — a year after the declaration of the Union of South Africa — a coalition of local women’s suffrage organizations established the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union of South Africa (WEAU) to campaign for women’s right to vote, as well as to promote and protect the rights of women. Historians have focused particularly on the WEAU’s decision in the 1920s to demand the extension of the franchise only to white women, as a result of which several prominent South African feminists, including writer and socialist Olive Schreiner, broke with the movement. Yet the pursuit only of white women’s right to vote was foreshadowed by the WEAU’s preoccupations in the 1910s — particularly in relation to young white women’s sexuality.

Women march and carry signs.
Women’s rights march in South Africa, 1959. (Public Domain)

Echoing similar arguments abroad about the importance of sexual knowledge for happy companionate marriages, the WEAU became increasingly convinced of the need to provide sex education at home and at school to boys and girls so that they could learn “the lesson that love and marriage were the most serious relationships of life,” as a speaker at one WEAU meeting put it.1

“Sex hygiene” had the potential not only to encourage social equality between men and women, but was also part of the process by which girls “could be educated to be more than mothers — human beings, and self-dependent.”2 The WEAU was interested simultaneously in opening up possibilities for girls by encouraging school attendance and post-school employment, and in protecting girls from predatory men. South Africa in the early twentieth century was especially preoccupied with the latter concern.

The social change attendant on industrialization since the end of the nineteenth century, war, and massive urbanization gave rise to a range of panics over illicit sexual behavior — including the perceived sexual threat posed by black men to white women. Despite widespread acknowledgment that white men posed more of a threat to black women, two commissions of enquiry into the so-called “black peril” were convened in 1912 and 1913.

Yellow sign with words written in black, both in English and in Dutch. English reads: FOR USE BY WHITE PERSONS. THESE PUBLIC PREMISES AND AMENITIES THEREOF HAVE BEEN RESERVED FOR THE EXCLUSIVE USE OF WHITE PERSONS. By order of the Provincial Secretary.
Apartheid sign. <Dewet/Wikimedia Commons)

The WEAU was convinced that if taught to men too, sex education could certainly prevent attacks on women: sex education should teach respect both for women and the sanctity of sex in marriage. But many within the suffrage movement suggested that more needed to be done to protect white girls — and especially from black men.

The commissioners who investigated the “black peril” recommended a range of interventions to ward off the threat to white women, one of which was raising the age of consent for white girls. The WEAU had already begun to raise this issue within public discourse in 1912. As Philippa Levine remarks, similar campaigns around the British Empire linked a higher age of consent to “notions of responsibility, adulthood and, above all, citizenship as these are understood in legal, in political, and in cultural arenas.”3

Feminists argued that age of consent legislation defended girls from sexually predatory men, and recognized them as citizens deserving of equal protection by the state and the law. Yet citizenship was, of course, racialized as well as gendered. In South Africa, it made sense to introduce a uniform, national age of consent: before the passing of the Protection of Girls and Mentally Deficient Women Act in 1916, this age differed across South Africa’s regions and was linked, often, to race. The age of consent was sixteen in the Transvaal, but in the Cape had been set at fourteen for white girls in 1893. This legislation was extended to rural African women in the Cape only in 1905. Similarly, the age of consent was pegged differently for white, Indian, and African women in Natal.

Two black children hold up a sign that reads DEATH TO APARTHEID.
Children at a demonstration protesting Apartheid, ca. 1977. (George Cohen/African Activist Archive)

For many of the WEAU’s members, raising the age of consent for white women to sixteen was linked to white women’s demand for the vote. Limited franchise was available to black men who met a property requirement in the Cape. Some suffragists believed that this made a mockery of their apparent racial superiority, and emphasized their vulnerability to black men.

In 1916, the Woman’s Outlook noted: “this humiliating fact of the voteless white woman, with her inferior political status to the vote-privileged black man, is the bed-rock cause of native crime on white womanhood!”4 Similarly, a higher age of consent for white girls emphasized their important status within South African society — as future mothers of the (white) nation, their sexual purity was linked to the greater good.

Legislation to raise the age of consent across South Africa and for all girls was passed in 1916, with relatively little opposition in Parliament. MPs did, though, insist on the exclusion of sex workers from the Act, gesturing to the racialized nature of consent in the Union. The majority of sex workers were black and while the Act pertained to all women, the intention of many of the men and women who lobbied for the change in the law was to protect white girls.

This noted, young women in South Africa — including those who were white, and particularly those who were poor and white — were vulnerable to sexual assault, even if the hysteria of the black peril panics was rooted in racist assumptions about black men’s sexuality. The Protection of Girls and Mentally Deficient Women Act had the potential to provide some protection to young women.

Moreover, it would be inaccurate to argue that all supporters of women’s suffrage in South Africa were concerned only by the plight of white girls — many white feminists worked closely with African women, and cared deeply about the extension of franchise to all women, regardless of race. The ideas which underpinned the WEAU’s advocacy of sex education were popular among a wide range of women. Companionate marriage, for instance, profoundly shaped many urban African women’s expectations for love and relationships in the 1920s and 1930s.

Yet the WEAU’s campaign to raise the age of consent for white women demonstrates particularly clearly how sex education and attempts to protect young women from sexual exploitation can become tools for establishing and maintaining racial hierarchies. Over the course of the twentieth century, sex education initiatives continued to do this work. Sex education manuals for white youth in the 1930s warned against interracial relationships.

Pamphlets aimed at white adolescents under apartheid in the 1970s sought to inculcate normative gender roles, warning girls that even if they attended university, they should ultimately prepare themselves to be wives and mothers. At the same time, though, sex education was mobilized by the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Members of the United Democratic Front demanded sex education to foster gender equality and to end sexual violence.

Women in a crowd hold up a sign that says EDUCATION IS NOT A PRIVILEGE.
South African women’s group speaks out against virginity scholarship. (© SuperSelected)

It was for similar reasons that I was invited to address that group of young women at the University of Johannesburg. In South Africa, young African women are currently the group most at risk of infection with HIV. While rudimentary sex education can impart vitally important information about how to use contraception to avoid contracting the virus, more comprehensive sex education for both men and women can begin to address the reasons for young women’s susceptibility to the disease: the profound social inequality between men and women; men’s sense of entitlement to sex; and the importance of consent. It was precisely this which my audience understood — that their freedom rests on sexual knowledge.


  1. “Moral Education,” Woman’s Outlook, January 1913, 7. Return to text.
  2. “Durban WEL,” Supplement to the Woman’s Outlook, June 1915, 12. Return to text.
  3. Philippa Levine, “Sovereignty and Sexuality: Transnational Perspectives on Colonial Age of Consent Legislation,” in Beyond Sovereignty Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c. 1880–1950, eds. Kevin Grant, Philippa Levine, and Frank Trentmann (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), 27. Return to text.
  4. F. Bancroft, “Woman in Her Attitude to the Vote,” Woman’s Outlook, (February 1916), 7-8. Return to text.

Sarah Emily Duff is an historian of childhood and sexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa. Based at Colby College, her current project traces the history of sex education in South Africa. She is the author of Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony (Palgrave, 2015).