How important are age disparities in sexual relationships?

Society still seems uncomfortable about large age gaps between partners in a sexual relationship.

And in the South African context it's important to first establish that such relations are between two consenting adults, says 'Dr T' Tlaleng Mofokeng, reproductive health activist and author.

In South Africa we're used to hearing this blesser-blessee type of talk, especially when it's young women who are viewed to be in relationships with older men.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

'Cougars' has a slightly different connotation to it - people don't judge these women as much as they would judge, for example, a girl in the township who's doing the same thing.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

She says it boils down to whether the younger person in a significant age-gap partnership feels they have agency within the relationship.

Are they able to negotiate how they want to have sex, when they want to have sex, what kind... And can they exit that relationship without any danger to themselves physically but also emotionally and psychologically.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

She notes that lack of power is at play not only between partners of different ages, but in any relationship.

Dr Mofokeng feels schools are not offering the kind of comprehensive sex education that helps young people negotiate sexual terms for themselves, amongst themselves.

A lot of what is lacking in relationships is that people go into these relationships, regardless of age, without themselves having a base where they are operating from.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

Because schools don't offer structured learning in terms of comprehensive sexuality education, young people still can't negotiate sex between themselves as peers because no-one has a discussion with them around what is consent and what isn't consent.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

People have to learn, she says, that refusing sex at a particular time is not a catastrophe.

It's important to tell people, you know if I don't feel like having sex right now, it doesn't have to be catastrophic or lead to a break-up. People can legit not feel like having sex now and nothing bad happens and they can try again the next time.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

Those younger women who are able within themselves to have these life skills, are able to negotiate are still better off, regardless of who they are in a relationship with, than older women or older men who are in a relationship with other older people.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Reproductive health activist and author

For more of this enlightening conversation, click on the link below:


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