Queer youth have moved to the frontlines in a bid to derail the new age of consent legislation.
The newly formed Age Of Consent Committee came out swinging Jun 22 with a media release accusing Stephen Harper’s Conservative government of a “regressive move to repress and criminalize youth sexuality.”
The committee is made up of youth and youth advocates concerned about raising the age of consent to 16 from 14; last month Justice Minister Vic Toews introduced Bill C-22 to do just that. The bill would not lower the age of consent for anal sex from 18, though judges in three provinces have ruled that the discrepancy is discriminatory.
“We’re really worried that the bill will criminalize youth sexuality rather than predators,” says committee member Andrew Brett, 21.
“The Criminal Code already criminalizes exploitative sex with anyone under 18,” says Brett. “There will be no positive impact with this law.”
There will, however, be negative impacts, he says. “Young people will be significantly less likely to seek out safe-sex and birth control information. And it doesn’t recognize the reality of sex among queer youth. Queer youth often seek sex with older gays. They seek out people who know things and can teach things. We need to value these things and understand that they can have a positive value for queer youth.”
The existing law, in place since 1892, does not protect children from adults who prey on them for purposes of sexual exploitation, says Toews. One problem with the current law, he says, is that adults can claim in their defence that youth consented to sex. The new law will allow the court to dismiss the issue of consensual sex and base its rulings on “child exploit-ation,” he says.
“Our goal with this legislation is not to criminalize teenage youth who may be involved in sexual activities with their peers,” Toews says. “It is to make the law effective and protect vulnerable people from adult sexual exploitation.”
The proposed bill provides a “close-in-age” exemption, a five-year difference of age. That means 14-year-olds could still have sex with 19-year-olds.
The bill grandfathers-in existing relationships, so long as a couple is married, living common-law or in a conjugal relationship where the youth is pregnant or has a child at the time when the bill comes into effect.
It’s confusing, says Brett. The result is that many youth will just assume the sex they’re having is illegal and not get the information and protection they need. Many will be afraid to seek out help and counselling if they’re in an exploitive relationship.
Toews says he is confident that the bill will pass once it has been studied in the fall. The NDP and some Liberal members have already shown interest in supporting the new legislation.
That’s something that upsets Brett, who ran for the NDP in a Toronto suburb last election, is a member of the party’s queer caucus and an active member of NDP Youth. The latter group passed a resolution in mid-June asking the federal caucus to vote against any increase to the age of consent. They’ll introduce a motion to that effect at the party’s national convention in September.
So far, he says, it’s proving difficult to get MPs to understand why youth oppose the legislation.
“I can’t say what their motivation is,” says Brett. “It’s really frustrating for me to see them not listen to what youth have to say and ignore our concern. I want to believe the NDP cares about youth sexuality issues.”
Brett is also concerned that the legislation does not reduce the age of consent for anal sex from 18. Toews said he didn’t touch the issue because he is introducing a bill focussed on the age of protection rather than the age of consent.
That language shift is “the most Orwellian thing I’ve heard from the Conservative government so far,” says Brett. “It’s a blatant reframing of the issue in Conservative discourse.”