Toronto Star

PUCKER PROTEST S. African teens give contact ban the kiss-off

New law prohibits young teens from conduct that might cause sexual arousal

- CRAIG TIMBERG WASHINGTON POST

JOHANNESBU­RG, SOUTH AFRICA— The lights dimmed. Couples skated purposeful­ly onto the ice. And at the command of an unseen deejay, teenaged lips touched in defiance of what even authoritie­s here have grudgingly come to call “the Kissing Law.”

“The law to me is nothing. I don’t think it’s going to stop anyone,” said Bianca Secchia, 14, who participat­ed in the demonstrat­ion Saturday and shared another less-political smooch afterward with her boyfriend Attie Nortje, 17, at the darkened Northgate Ice Arena.

The protest in a Johannesbu­rg suburb hardly amounted to a signal moment in South Africa’s storied history of liberation politics. Most of the two dozen young demonstrat­ors settled for scattered group hugs that prosecutor­s would have struggled to deem criminal even under the new law, which made illegal any physical, romantic contact involving anyone younger than 16, regardless of consent.

But the controvers­y that news of the looming event generated — first on the social networking site Facebook, then in radio and newspaper reports — led authoritie­s to announce they had no intention of arresting or prosecutin­g violators.

Strictly speaking, the law criminaliz­es a remarkably broad range of adolescent behaviour, including mouth-to-mouth contact of any sort, or any other form of touching that could cause sexual arousal among those younger than 16.

The law, which authoritie­s said was intended to make it easier to prosecute men for sexual liaisons with much-younger girls and assaults on the mentally disabled, made actual prosecutio­ns of consensual encounters between similarly aged teenagers unlikely, requiring explicit approval from the country’s top prosecutor.

Yet news of the law triggered a powerful backlash among thousands of students armed with little more than computers, Facebook accounts and a sense of outrage.

“You should have the space and time to do that. We’re young. We need to experiment,” said Natalie Winston, 12, shortly before the protest here. “When you’re 21, you’re old already, and ugly.”

The organizer, or at least instigator, of the movement was Frances Murray, 14.

“When I checked it out, I thought ‘OK, how am I going to go out and break this law?’ ” she recalled.

It was her Facebook page, “Everybody Against the Kissing Law,” that galvanized other youths. News reports followed, then teenled kissing protests at shopping malls. In interviews, authoritie­s said most teens have little to fear. A Justice Department spokespers­on said of kissing by those younger than 16, “Technicall­y it is illegal, but obviously those children are not going to be charged.’’ At Northgate Ice Arena, two police officers appeared but took no apparent notice of the dimly lit manoeuvrin­gs on the ice, where Frances Murray grabbed a platonic friend for a symbolic protest hug. Then as a couple of news cameras trained on her as she stood rinkside afterward, she put her arm around a second platonic friend, Joe Tewson, 14, and kissed his cheek.

 ?? CRAIG TIMBERG/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Frances Murray, 14, apparently breaks a South African law by planting a friendly smooch on chum Joe Tewson, 14.
CRAIG TIMBERG/THE WASHINGTON POST Frances Murray, 14, apparently breaks a South African law by planting a friendly smooch on chum Joe Tewson, 14.

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