On the last day of Parliament before the summer break, the Conservatives introduced a bill to raise the general age of consent to 16 from 14. They overhauled legal language, talking of the “age of protection” rather than the “age of consent.”
In launching the initiative at the Ottawa Police Services headquarters, Justice Minister Vic Toews sounded like the old social conservative of his days in opposition, rather than the more moderate minister of 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.”
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. That means, 14-year-olds could still have sex with 19-year-olds.
The proposed bill provides a leeway under the “close-in-age” exemption, a five-year difference of age.
If the bill is passed, offenders could be listed on a sexual predator registry. Toews says he is confident that the bill will pass in the fall. The NDP and some Liberal members have already shown interest in supporting the new legislation.
Ottawa police chief Vince Bevan applauded the move, saying it will close loopholes.
“The issue is people need to understand now that they are going to be held accountable for sexual activities with people under the age of 16,” Bevan said. “They used that loophole in law before. Now their conduct is going to be criminalized. That’s going to be an advantage for children and families.”
Not so, say some national groups. Egale Canada, for one, adopted a policy on May 11 opposing any increase for the general age of consent, but favouring lowering the age of consent for anal sex, which now stands at 18. Egale says increasing the age will criminalize nonharmful sexual activity and could discourage young people from seeking health services because of legal proceedings. This could lead to 14- and 15-year-olds keeping their relationships secret and not getting help in the event they are being pressured into nonconsensual sex.
Egale is far from alone. Two Ontario-based gay-rights groups — the Sex Laws Committee and the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario — oppose raising the age of consent and plan to testify before Parliament. Like Egale, they want to see the age of consent for anal sex lowered from 18.
AIDS groups, family planning groups and some youth groups also have spoken out against raising the age. They believe it will make it difficult to get safe-sex and contraception information to teens and create an environment of secrecy around sexual activity. Recent studies show many youth today start having sex as young as 12. Many gay youth prefer sex with people older than their own age group and seek them out.
The gay community was not consulted for this bill, Bevan revealed in an interview with reporters. Anti-child-exploitation groups like Beyond Borders were consulted. Mark Hecht, a cofounder and lawyer for Beyond Borders says there are still grey areas left by the legislation. For example, if a girl of 15 years of age has a relationship with a 21-year-old, will this automatically be labelled exploitation, he asked.
Bevan also applauded the $35-million program put in place by the Liberals in 2005 to fund 500 officers for high-tech crime. Part of the funding will go to investigating Internet websites that are alleged to be luring children.