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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Illegal yet developmentally normative: a descriptive analysis of young, urban adolescents’ dating and sexual behaviour in Cape Town, South Africa

Aník Gevers12*, Cathy Mathews23, Pam Cupp4, Marcia Russell5 and Rachel Jewkes16

Author affiliations

1 Gender and Health Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa

2 Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, Adolescent Research Unit, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

3 Health Systems Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa

4 Department of Communication, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA

5 Prevention Research Center, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Berkeley, CA, USA

6 Health Sciences Faculty, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

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Citation and License

BMC International Health and Human Rights 2013, 13:31  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-13-31

Published: 10 July 2013



In South Africa, it is illegal for adolescents under age 16 years to engage in any sexual behaviour whether kissing, petting, or penetrative sex, regardless of consent. This cross-sectional study investigated the extent to which young adolescents engage in various sexual behaviours and the associations between dating status and sexual behaviours.


Grade 8 adolescents (N = 474, ages 12–15 years, mean = 14.14 years) recruited from Cape Town schools completed surveys providing information about their sociodemographic backgrounds, dating experience, sexual behaviour, and substance use.


Lower hierarchy sexual behaviours, such as kissing (71.4% of girls; 88.4% of boys), were more common than oral (3.9% of girls; 13.8% of boys), vaginal (9.3% of girls; 30.0% of boys), or anal (1.4% of girls; 10.5% of boys) sex. Currently dating girls and boys were more likely to engage in sexual behaviours including several risk behaviours in comparison to their currently non-dating counterparts. These risk behaviours included penetrative sex (21.1% of dating vs. 4.5% of non-dating girls; 49.4% of dating vs. 20.2% of non-dating boys), sex with co-occurring substance use (22.2% of dating vs. 0 non-dating girls; 32.1% of dating vs. 40% of non-dating boys), and no contraceptive use (26.1% of sexually experienced girls; 44.4% of sexually experienced boys). Among girls, there were significant associations between ever having penetrative sex and SES (OR = 2.592, p = 0.017) and never dating (OR = 0.330, p = 0.016). Among boys, there were significant associations between ever having penetrative sex and never dating (OR = 0.162, p = 0.008). Although the currently dating group of young adolescents appear to be a precocious group in terms of risk behaviour relative to the currently non-dating group, teenagers in both groups had experience in the full range of sexual behaviours.


Many young adolescents are engaging in a variety of sexual behaviours ranging from kissing and touching to intercourse. Of particular concern are those engaging in risky sexual behaviour. These findings indicate that adolescents need to be prepared for sexual negotiation and decision-making from an early age through comprehensive and accessible education and health services; sections of current legislation may be a barrier to adopting such policies and practices.

Adolescent; Sexual behaviour; Courtship; South Africa; Health policy; Health legislation