NATIONAL

SIXTEEN AND READY FOR SEX?

Raising the age of consent tries to make young teens off-limits

DAFNA IZENBERG July 1 2006
NATIONAL

SIXTEEN AND READY FOR SEX?

Raising the age of consent tries to make young teens off-limits

DAFNA IZENBERG July 1 2006

SIXTEEN AND READY FOR SEX?

NATIONAL

Raising the age of consent tries to make young teens off-limits

DAFNA IZENBERG

If legislation tabled last week by Justice Minister Vic Toews passes in the fall, Canada will have a new age of consent—with a new name. The “age of protection” would raise to 16 (from 14) the age at which teens can consent to sexual activity. Concerns about infringing on youths’ rights and criminalizing teenage behaviour (a 2002 Health Canada study found over 50 per cent of Grade 9 students had engaged in “preliminary sexual activity” like kissing or touching, and almost a third had tried oral sex) have made the bill contentious, with one opponent describing supporters as “anti-sex.” But there is absolute consensus among observers on one point: the need to protect young people from sexual exploitation. Where they differ is on how best to achieve this.

The government has included a “closein-age” exemption, allowing sexual activity between adolescents as young as 14 with peers less than five years older. Still, critics are concerned that adolescents’ unique circumstances and varying developmental needs could be overlooked under the new legislation. “When we deal with arbitrary cut-offs, we lose the flexibility to apply the law in a much more specific and individualized kind of way,” says Peter Dudding, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada.

The CWLC supported amendments to the Criminal Code last year allowing consent of a person under 18 to be nullified if a judge determines the person was exploited. Dudding says with proper implementation, these amendments could provide the necessary protection while capturing the complexities of child development and human relationships. But John Muise, a 30-year veteran police officer and currently with the Canadian Centre of Abuse Awareness, says they remain subjective. “There’s nothing

subjective about 16,” he states.

Many age-of-consent skeptics see education-health information, self-esteem, and negotiating skills—as the key to helping youth stay safe. And Pearl Rimer of the Toronto Child Abuse Centre points out that, at a minimum, Canadians need to learn about the law. Many people do not know Canada’s age of consent, or that it refers to all forms of sexual activity, not just intercourse.

Maureen Reid of the Children’s Aid Society of London/Middlesex sees the new law as an opportunity to create stigma around sexualizing children. “If we start to think

about 14-year-olds as too young to have a relationship with an adult, that’s going to impact a certain percentage of our community because they won’t be able to point to the Criminal Code and say, ‘Well, hey, it’s legal.’ ” Many advocates of raising the cut-off believe 14-year-olds are simply more vulnerable than 16-year-olds, particularly with the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet and an adversarial criminal justice system.

Reid has seen very vulnerable youth turn to exploitive relationships for survival, but even teens with multiple resources are susceptible to intense feelings early in adolescence, a time when the need for adult attention is as strong as emerging sexual feelings. “Do you remember being 14?” says Reid. “It’s a powerful time in your life.” M