Don’t expect the federal Liberals or NDP to lead the battle against raising the age of sexual consent. They’re ducking for cover.
Raising the age of consent was the first change in law proposed by newly appointed Justice Minister Vic Toews last month. It’s a topic that the Harper Conservatives and their predecessors, the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party, had long made a priority, even introducing private member’s bills on the matter.
Both Liberals and NDP justice critics continue to argue against raising the age – claiming existing laws protect youth from sexual exploitation and that further criminalizing of youth sexuality would be a mistake. But they won’t commit to voting against a future Conservative bill.
Liberal Justice Critic Sue Barnes says youth are already fully protected from sexual exploitation under several laws now on the books. She points especially to Bill C-2, the so-called child-porn bill, the first law introduced by the Martin government after the 2004 election in which Stephen Harper suggested the Liberal leader was soft on child porn. Bill C-2 was strongly criticized by leading gay and civil rights groups because it made a difference in age sufficient grounds for a judge to rule that an accused was sexually exploiting a teen.
Bill C-2 is “very adequate. It enhanced protections against sexual exploitation,” says Barnes. There’s no need to raise the age of sexual consent from 14, she adds. Germany has 14. France has 15. “We’re in the same range as other countries. The reality is any sexual offence without consent is already a crime.”
The NDP, long a party that has trumpeted its support for gay equality issues, is taking a cautious approach this time.
Those who want to raise the age “have not proven to my satisfaction that it will better protect youth from sexual exploitation,” says Bill Siksay, the party’s critic for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans issues. The law has been at 14 in Canada since the late 1900s and appears to work.
“I think if the government introduces legislation we need a thorough hearing. We need to hear from experts and young people.” Evidence from research needs to be aired.
“Lots of people in Canada are concerned about exploitation,” says Siksay. “That merits discussion. I don’t want to deny people the opportunity. And I don’t want to see any backsliding.”
Libby Davies, the NDP deputy justice critic is also being cautious.
“I think this is going to come up in Parliament and we have to seek a reasoned, intelligent debate that is objective, rather than one based on a political ideology,” she says.
Siksay appears to have a bottom line. He says he cannot support any future Conservative bill that would not include an exemption from prosecution for teens close in age. “It would also have to reduce the anal sex age of consent, Siksay adds. The Criminal Code now sets a separate age of consent for anal sex – the only body part with its own sex law. That law has been ruled discriminatory and unconstitutional in three provinces – Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
In contrast, Liberal critic Barnes does not favour reducing the age of consent for anal sex.
“I’m very happy with where the Criminal Code is right now.” But, she says, she’s “open as the opposition critic to consulting with all communities” on the matter.
Even The Sex Party is dipping its toe in the water before taking a stand on raising the age of consent. The 250-member party ran three candidates in last year’s provincial election in BC and hopes to run federally next election, says founder John Ince, who owns a sex shop called The Art of Loving.
Ince says his members haven’t been able to find consensus on an age of consent. But like Siksay and Davies, he calls for a close look at what the research shows. And there’s one provision in the existing Criminal Code that makes him angry – singling out anal sex for a higher age of consent. That clearly discriminates against gays, he says.
“For me the litmus test is the disparity between anal sex and other sex practices. It’s clear in my mind that protection of youth is not what it’s about with that agenda, it’s something else.”
Siksay says he’s suspicious about why this issue has become a Conservative priority.
“I’m interested to see who is making the argument and why. I don’t want young people being sexually criminalized. I grew up in that kind of environment and don’t want to see it return.
“The politics of this Parliament are going to be very, very interesting. Many people are concerned about what the Conservatives will bring forward, given some of the things they’ve said in the past.”
Tom Warner says he’s not surprised that opposition Parliamentarians are diving for the bushes on the consent issue. Recent polls suggest the majority of Canadians want the age raised, and in a minority Parliament, the politicians try not to take any stands that can cost them future votes.
It’s hard to defeat a bill that’s going to be framed as protecting young people and children, no matter how wrong-headed and harmful the bill itself is, notes the longtime gay activist and member of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario.
But queers, civil libertarians, AIDS educators, planned-parenthood groups and others who care about the genuine health and well-being of teens need to fight back against anti-sex legislation, he says. A look at who’s behind the bill shows the need for pushing back.
“It’s all being driven by the religious right as part of their campaign to recriminalize consenting sex and I suspect they’ll be very loud on these things in the next several years. Despite what’s being said, it’s an attempt to remove the right to sexual self-determination of youth.
“The idea that once someone is over a certain age, it’s automatically exploitation is just wrong. It’s certainly the experience in our community that young people are often the seekers of sexual relationships with an older person and they do not feel exploited. It’s a fundamental question of young people being able to determine for themselves their own sexual decisions.”