3 min

The surprising thing about teen sex

Consent laws don't mean much & could promote unsafe behaviour

DO YOU WANT TO CHECK THE CRIMINAL CODE FIRST? Laws seeem to have little effect on teens' sexual decisions.

The president of the Canadian Association For Adolescent Health (CAAH), which released a countrywide survey on adolescent sexuality in February, says the age of consent makes little difference to teens’ sexual behaviour and raising it from 14 could be dangerous.

“If it’s a question of controlling behaviour, no law will control that, and it could have a negative effect,” says Jean-Yves Frappier, a paediatrician and head of the adolescent division at Montreal’s Saint-Justine Hospital.

The CAAH survey, based on 1,171 on-line interviews with teens across the country between the ages of 14 and 17, concluded that 27 percent were sexually active. The average age for teens to first have sex, including oral sex, was 15.

The study also showed that one percent had vaginal sex or oral sex at age 10, one percent at age 11, two percent at age 12 and 11 percent at age 13. At 14, 25 percent had vaginal sex and 29 percent had oral sex. Eight percent of males and 11 percent of females had anal sex, although the ages when it occurred was not reported, nor was the gender of the partner involved.

On average, teens had three partners since becoming sexually active.

Conservative Justice Minister Vic Toews says he wants to target adult predators, and won’t go after close-in-age teens having sex. But Frappier worries that teens won’t be aware of these distinctions and will be less willing or able to seek help or to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

“You’re a 12-year-old. You’re not necessarily listening to the news. That message doesn’t get through to these youths, who think it will be prohibited.”

In Britain, where the age of consent is 16, the sex advice charity Brook has found Frappier’s concerns to be a reality. Its study found teens “are also unlikely to seek advice about contraception and sex if they are underage because of worries about confidentiality and the law,” reports the BBC. “Young people were unlikely to seek advice before the legal age of consent at 16 — young women who first had sex before they were 16 were six times more likely than over 16s to say ‘fear of being too young’ was the reason they had not sought information.”

Frappier also says he worries that once the law is in place, parents, police or politicians will use it against teens.

The CAAH study reported that already 62 percent of teens say they face obstacles — such as discomfort in talking about sex — in getting answers to sexual health questions. The most common areas they cited included questions about abuse between partners, date rape and when they’re ready to have sex.

There appear to be very few, if any, studies that have examined the statistical relationship between age of consent and predator abuse, or even sexual abuse in general. But studies that have looked at age of consent and sexual activity appear to support Frappier’s concerns.

A survey conducted by condom-maker Durex in 1999 talked to 4,900 youth between 16 and 21 from around the world. The survey showed that youth in Canada and in the US, where the age of consent in most states is 16, on average had their first sexual encounter at 15. In Germany, where the age of consent is 14, the average age was 15.6. American teens had the highest number of sexual partners at 7.5.

Advocates For Youth, an Oregon-based group, conducted several studies over a few years in conjunction with the University Of North Carolina. Their studies compared the US, Germany, France — where the age of consent is 15 — and the Netherlands, where age of consent is 16.

Their 1998 report found that US teens on average lose their virginity at 15.8 years, Germans at 16.2, French at 16.8 and Dutch at 17.7. The same report found that US teens had, on average, 3.05 partners, the Dutch 1.7 and the Germans 1.9.

In 1999, Advocates For Youth reported that pregnancy rates were 83.4 per 1,000 for girls aged 15 to 19 in the US; 20.2 per 1,000 in France; 16.1 per 1,000 in Germany; and 12.2 per 1,000 in the Netherlands. Abortion rates for teens were 3.6 per 1,000 in Germany, four per 1,000 in the Netherlands, 10.2 per 1,000 in France and 25 per 1,000 in the US.

Advocates For Youth links the differences between the four countries to social approaches rather than to ages of consent, saying that the Netherlands, which has the most liberal attitudes, has the highest age for sexual activity.

“Those issues, and the public policies and practices related to them, include: access to healthcare, especially reproductive and sexual health services; sexuality education; mass media and social marketing campaigns; and family, community and religion,” says the report.