Friday, May 02, 2008

Raise in age of consent long overdue

Bravo Stephen Harper. After years of ineffectual stalling by previous federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, the age of sexual consent was raised to 16 this month.
No longer can sexual predators and sleazy old guys target naïve 14-year-old girls for exploitation.
No longer must parents watch as their children are lured off to some other city with a man who promises them love and excitement. Or risk arrest if they kick doors down and try to drag their son or daughter home because they fear for their physical and emotional safety.
No longer will men who buy beer for a 12-year-old and have sex her - a child in Grade 6 - be able to avoid conviction by testifying they thought she was 14.
That's from a real case in Saskatchewan, not some worst-case scenario. In Canada, men have been able to have sex with children in elementary school, as long as they could claim they believed the girls were 14. That made them old enough to consent to sex with a 50-year-old, under a Canadian law unchanged since 1892.
And 14-year-olds were free to take off for another city with anyone who persuaded them it would be a great time. They couldn't legally drink, or vote, or smoke or drive.
But having sex with a slick older guy, moving thousands of miles away with him - that was fine.
It was appalling. But past governments - under Trudeau, Turner, Mulroney, Chrétien and Martin - wouldn't do anything to protect girls.
It got positively creepy. Police chiefs and parents wanted the law changed. Eight out of 10 provinces wanted the change. (Saskatchewan and Quebec were the holdout defenders of the right of 14-year-old boys and girls to have sex with adults.)
But the federal government said no. Liberals and Conservatives were keen to protect the right of men to have sex with what most parents would consider children.
The excuses used by past governments to justify their inaction were embarrassingly and transparently lame.
Sorry, they said. The risk that a 16-year-old boy might get in legal trouble for having sex with his 13-year-old girlfriend is just too great. Better to leave children open to exploitation by adults.
It was a stupidly flimsy excuse. Other countries - not just Britain and the U.S., but nations like Thailand - have brought in protection for young boys and girls. Somehow Canada championed the right for men to sleep with kids.
The Harper government dealt with the problem pragmatically. The law doesn't make criminals out of teens who have sex. It accepts that teens are sexually active, no matter how much parents might be troubled by that. As long as both parties are within five years of each other in age, the law doesn't apply. A 17-year-old boy who has sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend won't be made a criminal.
The government's past failures have been bizarre. Partly, it seemed the whole notion of teens having sex was something the politicians just didn't want to acknowledge. Not many of us are comfortable with the idea.
But simply pretending it's not happening isn't a sensible response. The McCreary Centre conducts major studies on the behaviour of children and youth in B.C.
The last major report, in 2003, found that one in five B.C. 15-year-olds was already sexually active. That's perhaps 55,000 kids - not a small group. Seven per cent of 13-year-olds - another 51,000 kids - reported they had already had sex. That's two or three kids in an average Grade 8 class.
There's a big lesson for parents - and schools - in that. Children need to be taught about sex at a very early age, younger than most of us recognize. Ideally, they will wait before plunging into physical relationships. But in any case, they need information.
Just as they need protection from predators. The Conservatives deserve credit for providing that.
Footnote: Some organizations that work with young people expressed fears that the change could be confusing. Again, education is the answer, about all aspects of sexuality as well as the basic principle of the right to consent, or say no.

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