3 min

Don’t just Ziploc the kids

Harper's legislation would keep kids in the closet

Stephen Harper makes me feel like a kid again. Every time he talks of raising the age of consent to 16 from 14 , he reminds me of what it felt like to be a gay kid — isolated, insulted, disempowered.

I didn’t have sex of any kind until I was 21 — not a kiss, not a grope — and the closetry almost killed me. Not the lack of sex per se, but the lack of connection. All I really needed was someone to say, “Oh, there are a lot of people like you and some of them are right at that bar over there, and some of them are going to like you — a lot,” but there wasn’t anyone. Not a soul.

Years later, I learned that a couple of my high-school teachers were gay but of course they didn’t talk to me. Why would they? Why would any sane adult, especially a gay adult, be caught talking to a kid? At the time the terms fag and “paedophile” were pretty much synonymous in the public mind, and for a gay adult to have talked to a gay kid would have been the kiss of death socially.

Today, the situation is, if anything, much worse. Now it’s not just gay men who are suspect, it’s all adults. The hysteria over adult-child sex means than anyone who even goes near a kid is almost automatically branded a paedophile or a predator and Harper’s fear-based legislation is only going to cement that connection.

Think it doesn’t happen? Halifax teacher Lindsay Willow was accused of sexual impropriety with a teenage student and it took her six years (and $90,000 in legal and counselling bills) to clear her name. (The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission awarded her more than $27,000 in damages last week.) The evidence against her? She and the student were seen leaving a school locker room together.

It’s true that today’s kids have access to more points of view than we ever did, chiefly because of the Internet. They can get information, maybe even meet someone their own age. But mediated connections are not the same as a real-life friend, mentor or lover. As a gay kid, I never suffered from lack of information. I never believed I was “the only one.” I was smart, I read. What was lacking was a real person. Even in big, cosmopolitan Toronto that took some finding and I’m not sure it’s any easier today.

Harper’s legislation will make it even harder for gay kids to come out. Not only will it cut them off from the wisdom and experience of the larger, adult community, it will deprive them of the only tool they’ve got for increasing their personal power. Experience.

Author Jane Rule once remarked that it wasn’t enough to teach kids a defensive posture around sex. If you were going to teach them to say no to inappropriate touching or sex, you also have to teach them that “it’s a delight to be intimate.” The larger implication of that remark is, of course, that you have to respect their choices.

The Harper legislation promotes the opposite view, the idea that teens can’t be trusted with their own decisions and need other people to make them for them. Not only is this disrespectful, it’s dangerous.

People come into their sexuality at different times in their lives and it’s up to the people around them, especially their parents, to respect that. Telling kids they have no choice in the matter until they reach an age decreed by adults is an insult to the human spirit. Advise them, by all means, but don’t tell they’re not ready. How would you know? I was a late bloomer but over the years I’ve met a lot of people who weren’t. I met one guy who said he was giving blowjobs at five. This may or may not have been a good idea, but I doubt any sort of legislation would have altered his behaviour.

Harper’s legislation plays to the fears of parents who think their kids are going to get into all kinds of trouble if they’re allowed to have sex. Well, yes, of course they will — if you don’t give them the information they need to protect themselves and if — and this is the big “if” — you don’t give them the confidence and respect they need to make their own decisions.

As a teenager, I was a sexual innocent but I knew what I did and didn’t want. At 15, I brushed off a groping hand in a movie theatre; at 17, a Dvorak-loving suitor in a record shop. Maybe I was just repressed but I prefer to think I knew what I was doing and it’s hard for me to believe that most kids don’t have a similar self-protective radar. If they don’t, I suspect it’s because their con-fidence was shredded at an early age. (There are of course situations where kids are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, but the Harper proposal doesn’t even pretend to address the problem of the incestuous nuclear family.)

Everyone past the first flush of puberty knows there are risks associated with sex, risks both physical and emotional. The risks are real but that doesn’t mean they can or should be avoided. Like all the big mind-altering experiences in life, sex is learned in the trenches.