DIANE SOWDEN has given up trying to save her 22-year-old daughter—the little girl she lost to a life of prostitution and drug addiction on the seamy underside of Vancouver eight years ago. The Coquitlam, B.C. mother of six has channelled her frustrations into a more promising campaign: trying to save other children from falling into the sex trade by fighting for an increase in the age of consent for sexual activity. To Sowden, the twentysomething man who offered her then-14-year-old daughter drugs and invited her to live with him was a sexual predator. Sowden and her husband turned to the police, expecting that the man could be charged with child abuse. But under the Criminal Code, a 14-year-old can legally engage in sexual activity with an adult, unless that person is in a position of trust or authority. “She was pregnant, using crack cocaine and she was being pimped by this fellow,” Sowden says of her third child. “If we had the authority to go in and rescue her from that situation, maybe it would have helped.”
Sowden’s is not a lonely pursuit. Thousands of Canadians, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and family and children’s rights activists, are demanding an increase in the legal age of consent, believing it would deter sexual predators and stem a growing tide of child pornography. The governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario also support a change in the law. But last week federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, after meeting with the provinces to discuss amendments to the Criminal Code, said that the age of consent wouldn’t change, citing a lack of consensus on the issue.
“They are being so timid in Ottawa,” says Roz Prober, president of Beyond Borders, a Winnipeg child advocacy organization that launched a massive postcard campaign, urging Canadians to ask the justice minister to act on the issue. Prober describes Canada’s age of consent, one of the lowest
in the world, as an international embarrassment. In Australia and the U.S., the age is 16. “People are coming to Canada to have sex with children,” Prober claims.
Det. Noreen Waters of the Vancouver Police Department’s criminal intelligence unit maintains the current age of consent is a major stumbling block in the effort to contain the huge increase in sex crimes against children. The average age of victims across the country is 14, notes Waters. “We see a lot of kids drawn into prostitution, a lot of luring on-line at that age.” Adults take advantage of young teens’ confusion and vulnerability, she continues. “Pimps and pedophiles target that group, particularly girls. They get them to believe this is a boyfriend. He’s ‘the person who understands me, gives me gifts, takes me places.’” Once a child has consented, there’s little recourse under the current law. “The victim has to testify that she was coerced,” says Waters. “Otherwise, the courts can do nothing about it.”
Waters believes that raising the age of consent to 16 would protect many children
while putting the issue of sex in closer alignment with laws governing smoking and drinking—legislation varies across the country, but provinces restrict those activities before age 16. “In B.C. my daughter could not get married under 19 without our permission,” says Sowden. “She could not marry under 16 without the court’s permission. But she could live common law with anybody at 14—the law does not make sense.”
Not everyone’s convinced raising the age of consent is the way to protect children. “It’s good rhetoric,” says Rochelle Johnston, a program officer with Save the Children Canada in Toronto. “The public will feel like something is being done. But our experience, working with children in the sex trade, is that they need employment skills, counselling—things that cost money. Fourteen-year-olds can’t get protection—not because there’s no legislation, but because child-protection is grossly underfunded.” An increase in the age-of-consent lawintended to protect children from adultswould also restrict sexual activity among teens. The current legislation has a so-called two-year clause, which allows children under the age of 14 to engage in sexual activity
with a person within two years of their age. But if the age is raised to 16, “that would criminalize a lot of relationships,” says Johnston. “There are 15-year-olds having relationships with 18-year-olds; that may upset parents, but should the police be involved? We don’t want laws that are so out of whack with what is going on in society.”
It’s a troublesome issue for children’s rights activists. “Here’s the dilemma,” says Renata Aebi, executive director of the Alliance for the Rights of Children in Vancouver, a coalition that counts social-service providers, police and other professionals among its membership. “Yes, we want to protect children effectively, but also to support their rights.” Aebi places her group in the centre of the debate, between the Christian far right that wants parental control over children’s sexuality and those who balk at limits on youth freedoms. “There’s a massive growth industry in the trafficking of children, luring over the Internet,” she says. “Yes, it will help if we raise the age of consent from 14 to 16.” But that protection, says Aebi, shouldn’t come at the expense
Pimps target young teens, particularly girls, and get them to believe they are a boyfriend, ‘the person who understands me’
of teens’ rights to make decisions about their sexuality. Nor should it limit their access to birth control and abortion.
“Do they really believe young people are going to abstain?” asks John Fisher, Ottawa-based executive director of Egale Canada, a national gay and lesbian rights organization. “Pretending it doesn’t happen does nothing but drive the activity underground.” Fisher worries that if the age of consent is raised, school boards—already reluctant to discuss homosexuality—might use it as an excuse to postpone discussion of safer sex. “The worst-case scenario would be to deny young people access to information they need,” says Fisher.
If the law came into effect tomorrow,
Brian, a Halifax teen who asked to use a pseudonym, could be charged under the Criminal Code for having sex with a minor. “Yeah, I’d be in trouble,” he says. “I’m 18 and my boyfriend is 15V2.” Even so, Brian would like to see the age of consent raised to 16. He spent a summer in the sex trade when he was 15 and considers himself lucky to have escaped. “If the law had passed a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been so vulnerable.” And what about his boyfriend? “I would wait,” says Brian. “Child protection is more important.”
In 1995, Sowden founded Children of the Street, a non-profit organization whose goal is to decrease the number of children in the sex trade through prevention and education. The 49-year-old businesswoman visits high schools and tells students about her daughter. “We think we’ve streetproofed them,” she says. “In kindergarten, we talk about good touch and bad touch, about taking candy from strangers.” Now Sowden’s mission is to warn teens about more alluring predators. She, and many others, want all the help the law can give. lil
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