June 10, 2010

Under the age of consent: it’s not sex, it’s sexual assault

Posted in Age of consent, Child Sexual Abuse, Current Events, Rape Culture, Victim Blaming at 8:04 pm by sacetalks

A recent news item about a “sex contest” among grade 11 and 12 students at a BC high school arrived in my email inbox a few days ago thanks to a colleague. According to the story, the group of male students had planned a “game” where they would compete to see who could have sex with the most girls. Offensive enough, but the story becomes more disturbing because of the targets of the boys’ game: grade 8 girls.

Grade 11 and 12 students generally range in age from 16 to 19 years old, while grade 8 students are usually 13 to 14 years old. Let’s take a look at the age of consent in Canada. Our basic age of consent is 16 years old, which means that at 16, a person is considered to be able to take in the available information on sex and sexuality and decide what they want to do. However, there are some exceptions that apply to youth under 16*:
  • “Close in Age”
    • This applies to youth ages 14 and 15
    • Can consent to someone up to (but not including) five years older
    • For age 14, this means someone not older than 18
    • For age 15, this is someone not older than 19
  • “Peer experimentation”
    • Applies to youth ages 12 and 13
    • Can consent to someone up to (but not including) two years older
    • For age 12, this is someone not older than 13
    • For age 13, this is someone not older than 14

What this means is that for grade 8 students, many of them are not able to give consent to the average grade 11 or 12 student. Most youth do not turn 14 until at least halfway the school year, many of them not until after they complete grade 8. In these cases, if that older teen had sexual contact with that 13-year-old grade 8 student, that wouldn’t be sex. That’s sexual assault, plain and simple. However, the article refers to this as “sex with someone under 14” even when describing how the RCMP visited the school to explain the Criminal Code.

We have a social tendency to label sexual contact with someone under the age of consent as not-really sexual assault when the young person is in their early teens. Many people see it as inappropriate, but often, it’s viewed as less harmful than other types of sexual assault. Sometimes, they may feel that the young person behaved “seductively” or was a willing participant. However, this is claiming consent where no consent can legally exist: that younger person is not able to consent, and it is the older person’s responsibility not to abuse or exploit that youth, not to manipulate them, and to ensure that young person is really old enough to give consent. For a much older teen to use his age, more mature developmental status, and his social status as a high school student to obtain sexual contact with a grade 8 girl is exploitative and constitutes sexual assault. The girl he targets may experience similar effects to other survivors of sexual assault who were exploited, pressured, or coerced into sexual contact. So why do we keep calling this sex when it’s sexual assault?

Then there’s the response of the school. The article states that the school is instituting a program to teach self-respect to teens. Self-respect is a great thing to teach youth, but as a sexual assault prevention strategy, it falls far short of what’s needed. Exploitation of youth by people much older than them isn’t about whether those youth respect themselves; it’s about whether that older person chooses to abuse someone who is not old enough to give consent for sex. Genuine prevention would talk about respect for others: respect for the right to say no, the right to have positive consensual sexual experiences, and the right of youth to live free from abuse. Additionally, the RCMP’s statement that “sex with someone under age 14 is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison” also fails to address the fact that sexual exploitation is wrong, whether or not you get caught and go to jail.

Unfortunately, much of the response to this sort of incident is a moral outcry about teen sex. This response fails youth in two ways. First of all, it denies that what is happening in this situation is sexual assault, not sex. Secondly, it denies the possibility for youth to have positive, consensual sexual experiences with partners who are of an appropriate age. Young people engage in sexual activity: no matter how uncomfortable it makes some people, teen sex has been around forever. We need to provide factual sexual health education that includes positive messages about sexuality, the right to consent to wanted sexual activity, the right to say no to any unwanted sexual contact, and the responsibility to respect people’s choices about their bodies and their sexuality. And above all, we need to stop talking about sexual assault like it’s sex.

*A couple of other important elements of age of consent to note. No person under the age of 12 can consent to sexual contact at any time. Also, no person under the age of 18 can consent to sexual contact with a person over 18 who is in a position of power, trust, or authority.

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