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Queer youth oppose raising consent age

New organization created to fight legislation

WILL IT HURT OR HELP? Justice minister Vic Toews announces the new age of consent bill at Ottawa police headquarters on Jun 23. Youth activists say there's nothing good, and lots bad, with the bill. Credit: (Jefferson Mendoza)

Queer youth have moved into the front lines in a bid to derail age of consent legislation. The newly formed Age of Consent Committee came out swinging Jun 22 with a media release accusing the Harper 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.

“We’re really worried that the bill will criminalize youth sexuality rather than predators,” says committee member Andrew Brett, age 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.”

Young people moved to the forefront of opposition to raising the age of consent at a Jun 15 public meeting about the issue held in Toronto and sponsored by Xtra. Brett says queer youth came up to the microphone at the meeting “and were very angry about this bill.”

Conservative justice minister Vic Toews introduced Bill C-22 on Jun 23 — the last day of Parliament before summer break. It would raise the general age of sexual consent to 16 from 14. But the proposed bill would not lower the age of consent for anal sex from 18 to 16.

In launching the initiative at the Ottawa Police Services headquarters Toews sounded like the old social conservative of his days in opposition, setting aside the more moderate tone the Harper government has projected in recent weeks.

The existing law, in place since 1892, does not protect children from adults who prey on them for purposes of sexual exploitation, said Toews. One problem with the current law, he said, is that adults can claim in their defence that youth consented to sex. Predators groom children, and youth are made uncomfortable testifying in court, he added. The new law will allow the court to dismiss the issue of consensual sex and will base its rulings on “child exploitation,” he said.

But the government isn’t trying to criminalize teen sex, he insisted.

“Our goal with this legislation is to 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.”

In the lead-up to the bill, Toews suggested there would be a “close-in-age” exemption allowing a five-year difference in age.

The proposed bill provides a leeway under the “close-in-age” exemption, a five-year difference of age. That means 14-year-olds could still have sex with 19-year-olds.

For a period of transition, it also means that an age difference of more than five years is acceptable so long as the couple is married or living common-law or if the couple is in a conjugal relationship and the youth is pregnant or has a child.

It’s all so confusing to average youth, says Brett. The result is that many will just assume that the sex they’re having is illegal and not get the information and protection they need. And many will be afraid to seek out help and counselling if they’re in an exploitive relationship.

If the bill is passed, offenders could be listed on a sexual predator registry. 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 in the party’s national convention in September.

So far, he says, it’s proving difficult getting 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 upset that the legislation does not reduce the age of consent for anal sex from 18. Courts in three provinces have ruled it’s unconstitutional but it’s still on the books and being applied. Toews said he didn’t tough the issue because he is introducing a bill focussed on the age of protection rather than the age of consent.

But 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.”

The Age of Consent Committee has launched a website– www.ageofconsent.ca — “that’s how young people communicate,” says Brett. They’re planning to make a presentation to the federal justice committee when Parliament resumes in the fall.

Other groups opposed to increasing the age of consent include Egale Canada, the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, the Canadian AIDS Society, Planned Parenthood Ottawa, and the Sexual Health Division of Toronto Public Health.