Should the age of consent be raised? A Conservative bill proposing that the age of sexual consent be raised has feminists divided.
Assuming there's no federal election this spring, that question will likely be put to Parliament. Well, not that question exactly, but close: MPs are being asked to change Canada's century-old age-of-consent law to make it tougher for adults to have sex with teenagers.
A bill introduced in July 2006 is quietly making its way through House of Commons committees. After all, not too many politicians want to speak out about teen-adult sex--especially not in favour.
Under current law, anyone 14 or over can consent to sex as long as the other person isn't in a position of trust. Stephen Harper's Conservative government wants to raise the age of consent to 16. If the bill is passed, teens under 16 would be limited to legal sex with their close-in-age peers. The bill contains a close-in-age clause to allow a 14-or 15-year-old to consent with a sexual partner who is not more than five years older. That means that a 20-year-old could not have sex with a 14-year-old.
The bill has sparked a debate over whether consensual sex between adults and young teens is ever possible. For Roz Prober, co-founder of the anti-child pornography and anti-trafficking organization Beyond Borders, the answer is definitely no.
"Children have a right to a clear Criminal Code that tells them what's wrong and what isn't," says Prober, who maintains that sex between young teens and adults is clearly wrong. "A 14-year-old has 'exploit me' written all over her forehead," she says, "and must be protected from making mistakes."
Maria-Belen Ordonez, an anthropology professor at York University and a member of Toronto's Sex Laws Committee, doesn't want the law changed. Ordonez thinks Prober's attitude is harmful to girls and women, a group she believes is too often presumed to be made up of victims. Upping the age of consent would lead to "a complete removal of agency from young people," says Ordonez, who believes the draft bill is based on attitudes that stereotype men as aggressors and girls as helpless, "feeble-minded" prey.
Prober argues that she has seen enough cases of sexual predators luring young teens online to know that 14-year-olds can be vulnerable to exploitation.
While teen boys and men can be aggressive, Ordonez says, so can teen girls and women. "We should be more open and thoughtful about power dynamics," she says. Ordonez believes efforts by the government to criminalize teenage relationships will only drive them underground and discourage teens from seeking sexual advice. For this reason, she says: "I'm especially afraid for young women living outside the city core."
According to the 2003 Canadian Youth, Sexual Health and HIV/AIDSstudy, the average age of "first sexual intercourse" is 14.1 years for boys and 14.5 years for girls. Often it's with someone older. The fear that raising the age of consent will discourage teens from seeking sex information and birth control is one reason the Age of Consent Committee, a Toronto-based group of young activists, opposes the bill.
Prober believes the fear is unfounded. Teens, she says, will continue going to the sex ed source they've come to trust most: the Internet. "How many children are phoning Planned Parenthood for information?" Prober asks sceptically.
In Ordonez's view, Prober should stop trying to criminalize sex and instead work to ensure kids of all ages get enough sex information, especially in schools, at home and inside youth shelters, to keep them from being exploited.
Prober has this advice for Ordonez: "Get yourself into a courtroom and listen to a case. There are lawyers calling 12-year-olds sexual aggressors. If you wanted to design a system that's worse for children, it would be impossible."
Ordonez argues that girls are too often reduced to victims in court, especially when the circumstance is an older boyfriend accused of sexual misconduct. Sarah Inness, a criminal lawyer in Prober's hometown of Winnipeg, agrees. According to Inness, consent cases typically involve "overzealous parents" trying to keep their daughters from having sex with older boyfriends--even when it's consensual.
"I appreciate the concerns about exploitation," says Inness, "but the laws are designed to prevent exploitation. No matter what age, if you don't consent, it's a criminal act." Inness doesn't see the point in raising the age of consent, since the current law prohibits authority figures (no matter what age) from having sex with minors. The Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (formerly Planned Parenthood) supports the current age of consent.
"There's just not a problem that needs to be solved," Inness says, which is why she believes the current age of 14 is fine.
Under existing law, consensual activity with those 12 and 13 is not an offence if the accused is under 16 and less than two years older than the complainant. The exception is anal intercourse, to which no person under 18 can legally consent. Both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Quebec Court of Appeal have struck down those sections of the Criminal Code, but the law has not been changed.
One thing Prober and Ordonez have in common is that they are both worried. "So few people have a clear understanding of the adversarial nature of the justice system," Prober says. Ordonez figures her side is doomed, since more and more MPs seem to be lining up behind the bill to raise the age of consent, including members of the Liberal party and NDP.
And if the bill does pass, what next? Beyond Borders' website says an age of consent of 18 is really the ideal, but the organization is only going for 16 because it's a "reachable goal."
Ordonez sighs. "I'm afraid it is the next step."
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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