3 min

If we were serious about protecting kids

Why we should drop age of consent bill, make divorce easier

The best thing to happen to family in the last 100 years is no-fault divorce. Unfortunately, constrained by our unflagging and hypocritical praise of the former, we haven’t gone far enough with the latter.

Ending a common-law relationship is supposed to be easier than ending a marriage, according to the lawyers I’ve chatted with. But it’s still hard and folks often end up in court. Proponents of common-law arrangements tout its easy-out status as one of its advantages over marriages.

But with the nest of obligations for both same-sex and common-law partners growing, dumping your beloved has never been harder.

If we could get politicians to fix divorce, maybe they’d drop some of the dumb things they’re hung up on. In Canada, we have a long history of poorly-crafted, wrong-headed, anti-sex bills that purport to “protect children.” But strengthening divorce would far more effective at protecting kids than the bills politicians offer.

Case in point: Parliament resumes this week and with it the ongoing debate over Canada’s age of consent (currently 14 except for anal sex.) The bill has been introduced twice under Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s fragile minority government, first as a standalone bill which died this spring, and a second time as part of an omnibus justice package which currently waits in the Senate slushpile.

Bills to raise the age of consent have been persistent for most of the last 10 years. The previous attempt was a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MP Nina Grewal. Her bill was opposed by the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. Now, because of the changing winds of Parliament — and a five-year near-age exemption — all parties support it, and shame on them.

The ostensible reason given by Parliament is the protection of children (although, of course, we’re talking about teens, not children). It’s a rationale that the bill shares with Paul Martin’s unnecessary and dangerous teen “luring” bill from 2004 and Kim Campbell’s 1993 anti-porn law. Each was also a sop for votes by governing parties in a precarious electoral position.

The very fact that these bills — as foolish as they each are — were so widely popular is proof that Canadians want to rigorously protect young people. But if politicians were really serious about it, they’d look elsewhere.

On the cusp of Ontario’s first Family Day, it does us well to remember that the most likely person to abuse a child is a member of her or his family. News reports from the US suggest that 27 percent of women and 15 percent of men were sexually abused as children — by family members.

I’m the last person to suggest that major US news outlets are anything but alarmist, but those are grim numbers.

Meanwhile, because politicians would rather deal with stranger danger, we focus on hamhanded intitiatives. For example, prosecuting the “luring” of teenagers and age of consent offenders is often the result of complaints by parents who don’t approve of their teen’s consensual sexual choices — a mindset that’s often fuelled by homophobia on the part of parents. Combined with anti-sex law enforcement, you get a formula for vilifying gays, particularly gay men.

And all the while, kids remain in abusive situations because parents (often abused themselves) don’t leave bad (heterosexual) family situations. Emotionally, it’s hard enough. The economic punishment is also crippling, since shared living arrangements are obviously cheaper than maintaining separate households.

Add to that a legal framework that puts separated and divorcing couples through a multi-year, confrontational, expensive legal battle, and the result is families that stay together for all the wrong reasons, sometimes with tragic results.

Rather than oblige partners to support each other forever after a marriage ends, the Feds should strengthen transitional funds — social assistance, childcare, retraining — to help the dispossessed get back on their feet.

Gays have long advocated an “easy in, easy out” attitude toward relationships. It’s a model that keeps many in our community from enduring the grinding unhappiness of broken relationships. It’s worth advocating on those grounds alone, but since the Feds are fishing for votes by way of their child protection rhetoric, let’s point them at divorce rather than age of consent. It would be the most significant child protection measure we’ve seen in years.

Read recent Daring Together columns: