Last month Justice Minister Vic Toews introduced legislation that would raise the age of consent to 16 from 14. If passed into law, how would the increase affect young people’s decisions about when to have sex?
“People will still do what they do no matter what the law says,” says 16-year-old Arthur Gallant.
Those in favour of the increase in the age of consent — or age of protection as the new legislation terms it — say the increase will prevent exploitation of youth by older adults. But how will removing young people’s ability to give legal consent protect them? Proponents of Bill C-22 say if youth can’t consent, then they can’t be manipulated into agreeing to sex, and if so-called sexual predators can’t claim that sex was consensual they are more likely to be convicted.
Those opposing the bill — including the newly formed Age Of Consent Committee, a group of youth and youth advocates — say the change will only lead to an increase in unprotected sex. The argument goes that youth who are younger than the age of consent will be more reluctant to seek out sexual health information and get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections/ diseases (STIs/STDs) if they know it’s illegal for them to be having sex.
Gallant agrees. “If it’s illegal and 14-year-olds still want to do it [then] there are going to be more STDs.
“There’s going to be less 14-year-olds seeking [sexual health information] out if the law comes into effect. It’s going to be more secretive. People are going to be doing it behind closed doors.”
Currently, students in the Toronto District School Board begin sexual education in grade nine, at age 14 or 15. Before that, they have to go looking for the information themselves. Furthermore, in classrooms and in the media, abstinence is being prioritized as the best way to prevent STIs and pregnancy.
But the truth is that abstinence isn’t the way many youth go. According to a report published by Statistics Canada in 2005, 13 percent of Canadians have had sex before age 15. Almost 40 percent of youth reported not using a condom the last time they had intercourse.
The percentage of 14- and 15-year-olds having sex was found to be higher for those living below the poverty line and those who reported poor relationships with their parents. This could disproportionately impact queer and trans youth who may have strained relationships with parents related to their sexual or gender identity.
Gallant says he’s experienced a lot of pressure to forgo safer-sex practices. “One of the questions that [people on-line] ask is, ‘Do you have unprotected sex?’…. Many times I’ll say I want protected sex and they just cut the conversation short.
“You want to do it to fit in.”
Cameron McLeod, a 14-year-old from Brampton, says more education would be the better way to help youth make healthy decisions.
“I think that the best way to protect [14- and 15-year-olds], rather than to restrict their options, would be to better educate them of the risks associated with unsafe sex,” says McLeod. “Not many people pay attention to the current age of consent as it is.”
Gallant adds that telling youth what to do, in this case when they are and aren’t allowed to have sex, will only further the problem.
“Because you’re not allowed to do it, there’s more urge to break the law.”