2 min

Panel wrestles with youth sex

'We're treating normal growing up as a problem'

About 50 people attended a forum last week organized by Xtra to raise doubts about the Conservative government’s plan to increase Canada’s age of consent to 16 from 14.

“Does anyone think [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper is really going to side with queer youth?” asked panelist Ryan Hinds, a youth activist.

Last month Justice Minister Vic Toews announced his plans to introduce the legislation, likely including a close-in-age clause that would allow 14-year-olds to have sex with a partner up to the age of 19, and 15-year-olds with a partner up to the age of 20. The government has not mentioned any plan to equalize the age of consent for anal sex — now set at 18, though the law has been struck down in three provinces including Ontario — despite concerns that the inequality is antigay.

Panelist Leanne Cusitar, who works in a sexual health clinic, said that just because the anal sex law has been struck down here, doesn’t mean it doesn’t get used. She cited the example of a relationship between a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old, where the mother of the 17-year-old found mention of a sexual relationship in her son’s diary, and had the lover charged. Only after the 17-year-old arranged an interview to tell the judge that the relationship was consensual did the charge disappear.

“All over two people in love,” said Cusitar. “We’re treating normal growing up as a problem.”

Panelist Alix Mukonambi, who recently won an award for outstanding contributions to queer youth education and awareness, said the proposed changes haven’t been thought through to determine if they will help or harm youth; she argued it’s more about control. Nor have young people been consulted on the issue. She said there is a difference between children and adolescents, a difference which gets lost in the rush to protect “children.”

“The image of the child denies young people agency in their lives because a lot of youth aren’t children,” she said. “This is a Conservative government as it tries to live up to the image of the US.”

Tom Warner, founding board member of the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO), pointed out that the Criminal Code already protects young people with laws against coercion and assault, laws prohibiting relationships between minors and older persons in a position of trust, exploitative relationships because of undefined age differences, sex for consideration (sex for rent, food or money) with young people, procuring, child porn and luring over the Internet.

“You have to wonder how much more they could legislate,” said Warner.

All the panelists expect the legislation to pass; the Liberals and New Democrats have said they would support it, which would give it enough votes, despite the Bloc Québécois’ stated opposition. Panelists expressed their frustration that the NDP has not spoken out against the bill, since it has supported sexual liberties in the past.

“Jack Layton has some explaining to do,” said Warner. “You’re either the government or the church. You can’t be both.”

Audience member Andrew Brett, a member of the NDP youth wing, said they have come out against an increase in the age of consent, but “the caucus is not listening to us.”