Gay groups are not alone in opposing raising the age of consent. Civil libertarians, AIDS educators and planned parenthood experts worry about the impact of criminalizing teen sexuality.
Tracy Davidson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, notes that youth today often start having sex as early as age 12.
“Just because a law is in place doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” says Davidson.
Legislation that creates barriers between teens and adults will make it harder for sex educators to keep the lines of communication open on issues like birth control and disease prevention, she says.
Increasing the age of consent would be a mistake “if it reduced access to youth” to educate, says Davidson.
“Youth are sexually active and they’re going to experiment and need education and information to do that safely so then they can make healthy choices for themselves.”
Raising the age of consent would not reflect the reality of teens’ lives, says acting executive director Kim Thomas of the Canadian AIDS Society.
“Changing the laws won’t change behaviours,” says Thomas. “But it does make it more difficult to ensure they have access to condoms and information.”
In real terms, she says, it means more youth hesitating to walk into a drug store and buy condoms. Teen sex will be driven further underground. And health messages aimed at young teens could be accused of breaking the law.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “It absolutely puts youth at a higher risk because it drives people into a culture where they feel they have to be secretive. It may cause a great deal of harm for youth who are experimenting. It could stop them from asking the questions that need to be asked, and learning what they need to learn.”
Existing laws protect youth from sexual exploitation by authority figures and internet stalkers, says Thomas.
And, she adds, the suggestion that legislation allow youth close in age to have sex just leads to problems. How close in age? Two years? Or five years? Gay youth often seek out older partners; lowering the age of consent is “not taking into consideration the youth that are involved in same-sex relationships,” she says.
The BC Civil Liberties Association has had heated board meetings about the idea of raising the age of consent, says policy director Micheal Vonn. The board wants to avoid picking an age. But, she says, they want to know what the empirical evidence shows — and Vonn doubts that there’s any evidence that reducing the age to 14 will reduce exploitation.
Meanwhile, she says, “the issue here [should not be] what you choose to do sexually at age 14 and how to criminalize it. The issue is exploitation and how we get at it. I, for one, cannot believe age of consent laws are the way to address it.