Egale Canada has finally decided to oppose legislation to raise the age of sexual consent.
With the federal Conservatives reiterating their intent to raise the age of consent from 14 — where it has been since 1890 — to 16, Canada’s national queer lobby group has joined the voices opposing the move.
Egale Canada adopted an age of consent policy at its May 11 board meeting. It builds on Egale’s existing policy opposing the unequal treatment of queer sexuality in Section 159 of the Criminal Code, which sets the age of consent for anal sex at 18, and vaginal and oral sex at 14.
The policy reads: “Egale Canada supports the current general age of consent to sexual activity of 14 because: the current Criminal Code already protects 14- and 15-year-olds from exploitive sexual activity and Internet predators; the evidence does not demonstrate that increasing the age of consent will do anything other than criminalize nonharmful sexual activity; the prospect of legal sanction and third-party disclosure could discourage young people from accessing preventive and therapeutic health services and other forms of information and assistance. This effectively drives sex underground, isolates 14- and 15-year-olds and thereby makes them more vulnerable to sexual predators.”
But Egale is bringing up the rear among queer, AIDS and reproductive choice organizations opposing any move to raise the age of consent.
In April, the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO) and Toronto’s Sex Laws Committee came out swinging against Conservative Justice Minister Vic Toews’ plans. Raising the age would discriminate against the sexual choices of gay youth, they say, and fails to deal with the reality of teenager’s lives. Planned Parenthood Ottawa and the Canadian AIDS Society have also criticized the idea, saying it would interfere with efforts to educate youth about pregnancy, disease prevention and sexual rights and responsibilities.
The consent issue was raised as a priority during the Egale spring board retreat last month. Executive director Gilles Marchildon says the board discussed the optics of opposing an idea that has been framed in political circles and in the media as protecting youth from predators, but chose to take a principled stand on behalf of the rights of youth to control their own bodies.
“It’s fair to say that optics did inform the discussion on this policy, as it has to for all policies,” says Marchildon. “Maybe that’s why it didn’t resolve itself more quickly.”
The board agrees with laws that protect youth from sexual exploitation, says Marchildon. “But there are other Criminal Code provisions that do that, and other ways like educating youth to empower them to make good sexual choices.”
Marchildon says Egale will make presentations before Parliament if and when a revised law is introduced. The lobby group wants to seek the input of queer youth groups in a future campaign against the legislation.
It’s Toews who has picked this fight, says Marchildon.
“The clear expression by the justice minister to raise the age brought this onto the front burner,” says Marchildon. “Now the train is moving forward. Sometimes court cases prompt a position; in this case legislation did the same.
The opposition parties don’t seem to be eager to get in the way of the train. The Ottawa Citizen reported last month that the NDP caucus is preparing to join with the Harper Conservatives in voting to raise the age of consent. If a few Liberals also join in, it would ensure passage for a future bill.
“If you do the numbers, I think there is enough there,” NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said. Comartin appears to discount the choice of a teen that participates in consensual sex with someone older.
“The existing system, where you have to prove there has been an exploitive relationship, is simply not workable,” he is quoted as saying. “You have a victim saying it was a consensual relationship and how then, as a judge, can you find exploitation? You can’t.”