Raising age of consent sparks uproar

The federal government plans to introduce legislation this week to raise the age of consent to 16 from 14. On the surface, the bill seems like a slam-dunk, particularly in a world where parents fear Internet luring and predators of all sorts. But it is a thorny issue, one that is emotionally charged and has everyone from public health officials to youth workers wondering if changing the age teens can legally have sex will really deal with the problem of child sexual exploitation.

The proposed bill, which has been promised by the Conservative government since it took power last February, is creating controversy even before it has seen the light of day. It has almost universal appeal for police officers and anti-child exploitation advocates, but is getting more mixed reviews from youth workers and sex educators who worry that the change in age will result in the "criminalization of teen sex" and that it may force teens who are pregnant or need sexual health advice or information underground.

"The people that are supporting this bill are anti-sex," said Allie Lehmann, manager of sexual health promotion for Toronto Public Health. "We don't want the age of consent raised. We think it's fine at the age of 14. We believe in educating youth to make informed choices. ... Using the Criminal Code won't advance our aims in this regard." Teens, after all, are going to have sex no matter what the law says. The changes will "make their access to information and safer sex tools more difficult and that's what we're concerned about," Lehmann said.

The lobbying to change the age of consent has been intense from a variety of groups, including the Winnipeg-based Beyond Borders, an anti-child sexual exploitation group, the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness and law enforcement officials. All believe that Canada's consent law leaves children vulnerable and at risk. "It's all about protecting children," said Rosalind Prober, president of Beyond Borders. She and others in her organization do not believe current laws are tough enough to deal with Internet luring and sexual exploitation of teens by adults. Too much is left to interpretation, she said.

And once in court, teens now suffer at the hands of defence lawyers who engage in brutal cross-examinations, often leaving them emotionally exploited and vulnerable. With the Conservative government's proposed change to what Prober prefers to describe as "the age of protection" this would no longer happen. The new bill will make it perfectly clear: "Up to 16, adults, it's hands off children," she said.

John Muise, director of public safety at the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness and a former Toronto police officer, and others from his organization met with federal Justice Minister Vic Toews and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day about a month ago to discuss the issue. "It will make it crystal clear," he said of the proposed legislation. "I get that the Criminal Code talks about age of consent and exploitive relationships. But it's a subjective test. ... It will be one of those defining laws where everyone knows and is going to send a message to those guys who want to hang out with pubescent and pre-pubescent girls and guys � it's not on."

Both Prober and Muise balk at any suggestion that the new law will criminalize teen sexuality, saying that there will hopefully be a five-year exemption for teens that will allow for teen sex between a 14-year-old and a 19-year old or a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old. And they don't characterize themselves as being anti-sex.

According to a recent Leger Marketing poll of 1,508 adults, about 65 per cent of Canadians side with the Conservative government's belief that sex under 16 is immoral. The poll, which asked Canadians what behaviour they consider immoral, found that 61 per cent of men thought sexual relations before 16 was wrong; 68 per cent of women polled felt the same way.

Paul Gillespie, who recently left his job as head of the Toronto police child exploitation section, had for years been pushing to change the age of consent. Gillespie said the current Criminal Code provisions aren't effective enough in dealing with men who prey upon children. Too much is left up to the legal interpretation of a judge, Gillespie said. What he likes about the proposed change is it is very definitive � there are no shades of grey. The idea isn't to throw teens in jail for having sex. But rather "children are children and they need to be protected. "At a young tender age they shouldn't make these important decisions that will determine their future. "There needs to be certain restrictions in place."

But even if there is a five-year teenage exclusion in the proposed legislation or as some fear just a two-year exclusion, it doesn't make any difference to Toronto Public Health's Lehmann. It's "a red herring" as far as she is concerned. The proposed law is the antithesis of what Toronto Public Health believes when it comes to good sex education. "What we're trying to do is to get people to talk about sexual responsibility and negotiate and navigate within the area. "It needs to be up front, not underground. There are already enough barriers about getting the right sexual health information."

What worries Cathie Leard, a community education co-ordinator at Jessie's Centre for Teenagers, is that the proposed legislation "may drive some kids even more underground" and that they will not come to agencies like Jessie's for information and support should they get pregnant. The proposed legislation may have good motives behind it, but it may end up putting teens even more at risk, she said. "Pregnancy is a very noticeable sign of sexual activity," she said, adding some might seek abortions rather than fess up to a relationship that is illegal under the proposed legislation.

Leard also fears that she and others will be forced to report sexual relationships with those under 16 to authorities. Adds Cheryl Milne, staff counsel at Justice for Children and Youth: "The big concern is the criminalization of normal teenage behaviour. "This is the same government that wants young people to be charged as adults in court, but doesn't want them to be treated as adults when it comes to sexual matters. "If they care about kids having sex with adults that's one thing. What they need is to really strengthen the sections that deal with consent and sexual contact and conduct with adults that are in a position of authority."

Debra Black
19 June 2006

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