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First battle: Age of consent legislation

Conservatives give priority to anti-sex legislation

A sex law is the first legislation being discussed by Canada’s new justice minister — and activists are encouraging queers to start fighting back right away.

Increasing the age of consent is a top priority of the Harper government, justice minister Vic Toews told reporters. The socially conservative minister says the age of consent will be raised to 16 from 14. Toews did not say whether the age of consent for anal sex would be lowered from 18 to match that for other sex acts, as the courts in three provinces (Ontario, Quebec and BC) have ruled must happen.

Toews said he would bring forward the legislation “as quickly as possible” in a stand-alone bill. He expected other parties would support it. The bill would exempt close-in-age teens, Toews said.

“We don’t want to criminalize consenting sexual conduct between youth,” he told reporters. “We want to protect young people from adult sexual predators.”

The Conservatives have lobbied for years for the age of consent to be raised to 16. It was first set at age 14 in 1892. In recent years, the Conservatives repeatedly attempted to introduce private members’ bills raising the age of consent to 16 and even to 18. West Coast MP Nina Grewal has made it a personal campaign pledge.

But the Liberals, following the general direction the courts were pointing, refused to go along despite strong feelings among some of their own MPs. Instead, the Liberals brought in Bill C-2 last year, legislation that allows a judge to decide whether teens over 14 are in an “exploitive relationship.” That bill was strongly criticized by civil libertarians and gay groups for criminalizing teenage sexual behaviour and ignoring the realities of the sexual preferences of many gay teens.

Hilary Cook, the chair of Egale Canada’s legal committee told Capital Xtra last March, “In a class of 25 students, the chance of finding the [queer] love of your life is much reduced.” In a world of schoolyard harassment, bullying and generalized homophobia, teens often date and seek sex outside of their peer group, she said. It’s unrealistic for a government bill to require sex only with those of their own age.

“That’s not the queer youth reality,” she said.

Egale failed to take a final position on Bill C-2 and present it to Parliament in 2005. And they’re not yet prepared to come out swinging against Toews, says executive director Gilles Marchildon. But the legal issues committee is examining the issue and he’s received e-mails this week from committee members chomping to get at it.

“It’s definitely now an imperative” to develop a stand, he says.

Historically, says Marchildon, Egale policy did not specify a specific age of consent. But it did say that it should be the same for everyone, and that specific sex acts — such as anal sex — should not be set at a higher age of consent than other acts.

Egale has been widely criticized in the gay community for this stand. Instead, activists have suggested, they should fight for the equality rights of all teens to choose for themselves when to get sexually active and with whom.

With an increased age of consent enjoying the support of most provincial attorneys general, and the possibility that the Liberals and NDP may lack the courage to oppose the bill, Marchildon worries that “politically, this looks like a freight train heading down the tracks. And this has us concerned.”

Gary Kinsman, a sociologist at Laurentian University, says the queer community must quickly get active to fight the proposed legislation.

“We should be extremely disturbed by this,” says the sociologist, researcher and longtime gay activist. “It’s a forewarning about things to come.

“This is a step in the wrong direction. We were moving as a society to lowering the age of consent.”

He said gays and lesbians need to oppose any suggestion of raising the age of consent, build allies (among civil libertarians, sex workers, trade unions and other pro-sex allies) to stop the bill, and fight instead for officially bringing the age of consent for anal sex down to 14 from 18.

“We need to put sexuality back on the agenda. Not just gay and lesbian sexuality, but also the sexuality of straight people.”

Instead of picking on sexual minorities and the sexual freedoms of teens, government should address “the real problems of sexual violence and abuse in our society. We need to get to the roots of that violence and abuse.”

Peter Bochove, a Toronto bathhouse owner and founder of the Committee To Abolish The 19th Century, says, “Nobody should be remotely surprised that this is the first act” of the Harper government. “They’re going to get their radical religious-right legislation through Parliament as soon as possible so people get over it before the next election.”

It’s up to queers and our sex-positive allies to “bog them down” so the Conservatives cannot pass legislation aimed at us, says Bochove. “Our strategy will be to watch them, speak out, not let it go and fight it all. They don’t have a large mandate. We must shout it from the rooftops.”

Harper, says Bochove, is the first Canadian prime minister in memory “to thank God for his job, instead of the people who voted for him. He’ll start by fucking around in our bedrooms. He’ll start with us. These people are outdated.”