Dec. 01, 2010 - Issue #789 : Beckett Shorts
Age of consent change hasn't increased protection
Two years ago, our federal government changed the age of legal consent to sex from 14 to 16. I followed the lead-up to this change closely as I have worked in sexual violence education for many years. My experience taught me that there are a lot of misconceptions around what our criminal code says about teenagers and sex. I've always felt that the issue is not with our consent laws but with our lack of education and enforcement of them. When the proposal to increase the age of consent came forward, I was worried that the Conservatives were simply using this issue as a way to score easy popularity points with a public that didn't necessarily understand the complexity of the issue. A study released last week may have proved my cynicism warranted.
The reason for the change, according to the government, was to protect more teenagers from adult sexual predators. I'm sure most people considered the change to be positive because it appeared to extend this protection to a larger number of teenagers by making adult sex with teenagers illegal all the way to age 16. But this new study, based on the British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey from 2008, found that only two to three percent of teenagers aged 14 and 15 who were sexually active have had sex with an adult, as opposed to 39 percent of sexually active teens aged 12 to 13. The study suggests that the most vulnerable group is teenagers under 14, the group that was already protected by the previous age of consent.
If we are still concerned about those two to three percent of 14 to 15 year-olds who may need that protection, we never had to be because the existing law addressed them. The consent of anyone under 18 is not considered valid if the sexual activity exploits the young person or if the person the teenager consents to is in a position of trust or authority over them. The criminal code states that the activity can be deemed to be exploitive depending on a number of factors, one of them being the age of people involved and the age difference between them. This means that, anyone who had a concern about an inappropriate sexual relationship between an underage person and an adult, could report that relationship and charges could be laid under that section of the code. That young person's consent is not legal if it can be shown that, merely by the fact of a difference in age and experience, that young person was manipulated or exploited.
The study's authors conclude that what was, and is needed is not a change to the consent laws but rather better enforcement of the existing laws. I have to agree. If we simply outlaw adult sex with teenagers, we can breathe a sigh of relief and believe that our children are magically protected when in effect, we really haven't done anything at all. The laws are appropriate; what we need is broader and more effective public education on what those laws are, particularly for young people who may be at risk of exploitation and abuse. We need education for our law enforcement and judicial systems so that they understand and interpret our consent laws correctly, making it easier for victims to make complaints and get proper justice.
Rather than this simple fix that makes it look like we've made progress, we need real change to the way we deal with sexual violence against young people. V
Brenda Kerber is a sexual health educator who has worked with local not-for-profits since 1995. She is the owner of the Edmonton-based sex-positive adult toy boutique, The Traveling Tickle Trunk.
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