Let’s start with a brief history of the age of consent law in Canada. Since 1892 the age at which a person was considered capable of consenting to sexual activity has been set at 14. In the spring of 2008, this was raised to 16, with the exemption that “sex between peers under 16 is okay, as long as neither is in a position of authority and they are 12 or older. Likewise, under a “close-in-age” provision, if a person under 16 (and 12 or older) has sex with someone less than five years older, they can be considered to have consented unless the older person is in a position of authority.” (emphasis mine) (source)
The law was changed in response to growing concern over international tourists visiting Canada to take advantage of the low age of consent. In short, Canada was becoming a child sex tourism destination. (source) In particular, take a read about Dale Eric Beckham, a 31-year old American who met a 14-year old Canadian boy on the internet, and flew to Canada to have sex with him. The boy’s parents alerted the police, who arrested Beckham. The boy testified that it was consensual, and so Beckham was released.
Now let’s get topical. Roman Polanski raped a 13 year old girl. She was underage, and didn’t consent. There are some people who seem to think that this shouldn’t be a criminal offense, or that he should be pardoned, etc. If those people are here, may I direct you to Kate Harding’s response at Salon.
I was talking with some roommates yesterday about Canada’s age of consent laws. It started when I brought up a family I know with a 16 year old daughter who moved in with a 25 year old boyfriend. I brought it up as an example of why I think the age of consent should be 18 (with near-age exemptions in place). The roommate disagreed. He thought there shouldn’t be an age of consent at all, because as a libertarian, he is against self-harm laws.
I argued that children don’t have the capacity to make certain decisions.
For example, most kids don’t like school, but we can’t let them drop out just because they don’t see the point in staying. We don’t let kids make their own medical decisions. They can’t vote, join the military, or buy cigarettes or alcohol. They don’t have the capacity to consent.
My roommate suggested that perhaps we SHOULD let children drop out of school, make their own medical decisions, vote, and etc., at the guidance of their parents. Currently, parents make medical decisions for their kids, so why shouldn’t parents be in charge of whether or not their kid drinks alcohol and has sex. It shouldn’t be up to the government to decide these things.
I find this to be a poor argument, because how many of you asked your parents for permission and insight the first time you snuck off with friends to drink? It is naive to suggest that parents know what’s going on in their kids lives. Let’s also remember that in the Roman Polinski case, it is pretty clear that the mother knew what was going on. Do we not still owe it to protect the boys and girls who have parents who make these kinds of decisions? I think it is the government’s role to protect the vulnerable, and I think children are vulnerable.
I really think everybody should be able to agree that an age of consent law is necessary. If you truly believe that any person of any age can make their own decisions, then I don’t know what to say to you. But if we’re all on the same page that age of consent laws need to exist, then the discussion comes down to what age the age of consent should be.
Eighteen would be consistent with other laws that have decided a person should legally be treated as an adult at 18. Of course, at 18 there are plenty of people who aren’t mature enough to make good decisions, but I think the “is 18 really an adult?” discussion is a totally new conversation.
This isn’t to say that I think nobody under the age of 18 should be legally allowed to have sex. I like the near-age exemptions in the Canadian law, because it distinguishes between peer-peer sex and adult-child sex. To say that there is no difference whether or not an authority figure is involved is to ignore or not understand social power. Kids are taught to listen to and trust adults, their adult family members, their teachers, their soccer coaches, and that person on the street who offers to buy them a milkshake for no reason.
So I guess to conclude, I think the age of consent should be 18 with near-age exemption limits. I like talking (and blogging) about this sort of thing, because it helps me realize that I have opinions on things I’ve really never thought about! I’m a little bit nervous to be posting this, though, because all my favourite feminist bloggers are very “THIS IS HOW I FEEL: and why you should, too” and this post is more “well, I’ve been thinking about this, and here’s where I’m at right now.” I guess if you’re looking for eloquent argument then maybe this post isn’t it, but the whole roundtable, think-it-out-loud thing is what we’re going for. Please continue the conversation in the comments!