4 min

Free to screw around

Consent a sticking point for sex laws group

OLD ENOUGH TO GIVE IT AWAY, TOO YOUNG TO SELL IT. Activist Tom Warner admits that teen sexuality can get in the way of consensus. Credit: Sean Jacquemain

Pity the poor political activist toiling in the gulags of legal reform. More than 20 years after the great Toronto bath raids of 1981, scores of puritanical sex laws remain on the books and if more people aren’t charged with outdated sex offences, it’s not because the cops don’t have the power.

Everything from park sex to group anal sex remains in the Criminal Code Of Canada. Not to mention threats to personal privacy like the bawdy-house laws. The police haven’t backed off, they’re just holding fire most of the time. Just ask the folks caught up in police raids on Belleville’s parks, Calgary’s Goliath’s baths or Montreal’s Taboo strip club.

Unhappy with this state of affairs, a small group of Toronto activists known as the Sex Laws Committee has decided to take back the law, calling for repeal or reform. The only problem is that, in the absence of a major cause célèbre like the Toronto bath raids, there’s no urgency on the issue.

Formed a year ago as an offshoot of the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO), the committee, which consists of about 10 keeners and 30 to 40 interested observers, has yet to come up with even the most basic statement of principle, like why they exist and what they’re doing.

The committee was set back by the untimely death last October of key member and long-time Toronto activist Greg Pavelich. The group hasn’t made life any easier for itself by expanding its terms of reference. Initially formed to look at the bawdy house and indecency laws, it has also decided to tackle the laws governing the sex trade. The name was changed from the Bawdy House Committee to the Sex Laws Committee this past winter to reflect the new tack.

“In terms of consensual sex, the general feeling is that there shouldn’t be any restriction, there shouldn’t be any criminal sanctions on it,” says Tom Warner, a long-time CLGRO activist and key member of the committee.

But “if we say our objective is to free consensual sexual activity from regulation by the state there are still some issues around what constitutes consent,” says Warner.

Which may be the understatement of the year.

Although consent can equally well be described by mental or emotional capacity, knowledge, experience or even the ability to forecast the consequences of one’s actions, it’s usually defined in terms of age and that, of course, plays right into the current hysteria over youth sexuality. The current law puts the age of consent at 14, with various exceptions for bum-fuckers, sex workers and youth under someone’s authority. But even within the committee there’s some disagreement about how or if it should be changed. This is a group of people, says Warner, “who are probably more progressive and aware on issues of sexuality [than the public at large, yet] even within that group there are some people who are uncomfortable with the current age of consent.”

Warner thinks they’ll eventually agree to “at least leave the age of consent where it is now and establish it across the board for everything including anal intercourse. Where it gets more controversial,” says Warner, “and difficult to reach consensus is around issues of prostitution.”

Most committee members, says Warner, are in favour of decriminalizing sex work. But only for adults.

Right now, the legal entry age for prostitution is 18. Some people on the committee, says Warner, think that’s fine, others that it should be lowered to 16, and still others that it should jive with the regular age of consent and dropped to 14.

But do you want to say that it’s all right for 14-year-olds to prostitute themselves? Philosophically, it’s only logical. If teenagers can give it away, why can’t they also sell it? But strategically, the idea probably won’t fly. In the current climate of hysteria over intergenerational sex, the very suggestion that teenagers should be allowed to control their own bodies is heretical. Worse, it might deflect attention from the group’s core work on consensual adult sex.

Not that the ethics of adult sex is any easier. Take hard-core sadomasochism (SM). In theory, it’s every adult’s choice to make. But what about the case of the German man who agreed to be murdered and cannibalized? The man gave his consent. Should that be allowed? Or does consent in such a case actually indicate its opposite, an inability to freely consent because of mental or emotional incapacity?

Warner also expects some controversy around the issue of human trafficking. Existing laws around forcible confinement, kidnapping and coercion could presumably be used to deal with the problem, but a number of feminist groups are calling for stronger laws in that area.

The committee is composed of queer activists, academics, lawyers and sex workers and that very breadth is both a strength and a weakness.

“It’s a very diverse group of people with very different perspectives and experiences,” says Warner, “and it always takes a bit of time to work through those. But I think we’re getting there.”

The committee hasn’t made it any easier for itself by taking a somewhat idealistic approach to legal reform. “It wouldn’t be as complicated probably if we did the pragmatic thing and just looked at a particular law,” says Richard Hudler, another committee member. But unlike the marriage-minded reformers who have tackled various aspects of spousal rights on a case-by-case basis, the Sex Laws Committee is trying to come up with a statement of principle first, a strategy second.

Warner admits the process has taken longer than he expected, but the committee is close to agreement on a basic statement and he expects to have consensus by the fall.

Once they’ve reached that stage, says Warner, they hope to broaden their support and bring in labour, women’s and sex workers’ groups. “We know we’re not going to be able to do this on our own.”

* The Sex Laws Committee can be contacted through Richard Hudler at