Should age of consent be raised?

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The Glassen High School Ethics Essay Competition is sponsored by the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and the University’s Department of Philosophy. The Free Press has once again been a valued co-sponsor. This year’s contest topic was: Is 16 too young for sexual consent?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2009 (4983 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Glassen High School Ethics Essay Competition is sponsored by the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and the University’s Department of Philosophy. The Free Press has once again been a valued co-sponsor. This year’s contest topic was: Is 16 too young for sexual consent?

 NO: Don’t further stigmatize teenage sexuality

By Katerina Tefft

The current age of 16 for sexual consent is a flawed policy. Raising the age would only serve to endanger the wellbeing of the nation’s youth. The state would do best to avoid such an unnecessary restriction of hard-won civil liberties.
Teenagers today are appropriately trusted with a great deal of responsibility, most of which has the potential to affect those around them far more than the choices they make in their personal lives. It seems backwards that we as a society have more confidence in a 16-year-old’s ability to own and operate a vehicle, (a potentially deadly weapon,) than their ability to make responsible choices with regards to their own sexuality.
By the age of 16, a person may legally obtain employment in most establishments. If 16-year-olds can be trusted to maintain a job while also juggling the responsibilities of school and other activities, they can most likely be trusted to judge for themselves whether or not they are ready to become sexually active, and with whom they choose to engage in sexual activity. When we place restrictions on the behaviour of young people, especially when this behaviour is so uniquely private and personal, we are also restricting their ability to grow and mature into responsible, free-thinking adults. By raising the age of consent, we would not be teaching teenagers how to make good decisions; rather, we would only be impairing their ability to learn these decision-making skills on their own initiative.
Advocates for a raised age of consent may argue that their primary intent is to protect children from the potential hazards of sexual activity, such as sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy, as well as from certain dangerous individuals who prey on unsuspecting youth.
While all the aforementioned hazards are undeniably best avoided, raising the age of consent may not be the right method of accomplishing this goal. In fact, it would likely only increase these risks and place young people in even more danger than that which they might experience with a lower age of consent.
The Canadian AIDS Society has stated that “increasing the age of consent could result in young people being more secretive about their sexual practices and not seeking out the information they need. This will place youth at an increased risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”
A raised age of consent would not only increase the irrational social stigma against teenagers engaging in sexual activity, it also would increase the fear and guilt that surround the issue and prevent teenagers from seeking the help they need to protect themselves. Accurate information with regards to sexual health is already hard enough to come by.
However, in addition to the aforementioned potential hazards of a raised age of consent, there are also certain ethical implications to consider in this debate. It was Pierre Trudeau who said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” and this quote rings just as true today as it did in the seventies. When sex is between two consenting individuals who are both fit to give that consent, there is no reason for the state to intervene.
Everyone’s experiences are different; therefore it is difficult to implement one law to dictate what is right and what is wrong for an entire population. The attempt to implement such an archaic law seems to demonstrate the influence of religious morality, something which is best kept separate from matters of the state. According to Andrea Cohen of the Canadian Federation of Sexual Health, “There is no evidence to suggest that raising the age of consent would protect youth, but what it will do is infringe upon the rights of youth in terms of their ability to make decisions on their own sexuality.” Engaging in sexual activity is a personal choice, one which the government ought to respect. Control over one’s own body and sexuality is a basic human right that no one should be denied.
Furthermore, there is evidence that those individuals who propose to raise the age of consent are not uniquely concerned with the welfare of the nation’s teenagers.
It seems that personal morality and prejudice may also be factors in the policies of our government, as demonstrated by the difference in ages of consent for vaginal and anal sex. In Canada, 16 is the age of consent for vaginal intercourse while 18 is the age of consent for anal intercourse. It is plain that there is absolutely no rational reasoning behind this difference. When it comes to anal sex, the increased risk of transmitting sexually transmitted infections is cancelled out by the dramatically decreased risk of unwanted pregnancy. This law is an obvious attack on the rights of male homosexual citizens, and it severely damages the credibility of our age of consent laws.
One is forced to question whether or not the government really has its citizens’ best interests in mind when it implements such policies, or whether there exists a hidden agenda.
There are several perfectly practical alternative solutions to this age-of-consent dilemma. The close-in-age exemptions which are currently included in our age-of-consent laws are often very effective in providing protection from sexual predators while still leaving plenty of room for individual freedom. Instead of raising the age of consent, the government could instead consider extending close-in-age exemptions, which would serve as a compromise for both those opposed to and in favour of raising the age of consent. In addition, if the government wishes to protect the youth of Canada from the dangers of sexual intercourse, it would better off concerning itself less with raising the age of consent and more with increasing the accessibility of correct information regarding safe sex practices.
The key to good sexual health is not stricter laws, but rather education and awareness.

Katerina Tefft is the 2009 winner of Glassen High School Ethics Essay Competition and $1,000 prize for best essay. Her supervising teacher at Kelvin High School was Morgan Gregory.

 

YES: This is not simply  a moral issue

By Kelsey Watchman

Sixteen years of age is too young for sexual consent because teens are not psychologically mature enough to give informed consent. Teens do not adequately appreciate the ramifications and consequences of having sex at such an early age. The age of consent should be the national age of majority, 18 years of age.

In a free society, there will always be limitations and restrictions on individuals, usually based upon their ability to do harm to themselves or others.

One of the most basic responsibilities of society is to protect the young and the infirm. However, as a society we must always balance such restrictions against the need to preserve the individual’s freedom and dignity.

When it comes to the young, this balance takes the form of prescribing an age at which it is reasonably believed that they have the maturity to fully comprehend and assume responsibility for their actions. Striking this balance at a particular age is not simply arbitrary.

While there will be 16-year-olds who are more than mature and 18-year-olds who are not, an objective criterion, such as age, is necessary for the determination of legal responsibility and must ensure that the balance serves primarily to protect the young while limiting restrictions on personal freedom

Our society recognizes a minimum age for such things as consumption of alcohol, gambling and voting in elections. The decision to have sex is no less significant than any of these other decisions, but would anyone suggest that the age of consent in these instances should be less than 18 years of age?

The legal age of consent is not simply a question of morality. Health-care studies have shown that there are ramifications to having sex at such a young age.

In the last 10 years, teen pregnancy rates have declined but abortion rates have increased by more than 50 per cent and sexually transmitted infection rates have increased significantly.

One out of five sexually active teens does not use birth control. The message is clear:

Teens do not wish to experience the unwanted consequences of sexual activities, but they are simply not responsible enough to deal with the major consequences of their actions.

Furthermore, the burdens of immature sexual activity, such as child-care responsibilities, are typically borne by the teenage girl.

Too frequently this means that the girl’s education and, therefore, prospects for the future, will be put on hold if not completely ended. In turn, this frequently leads to burdens for the girl’s family as well as for the girl.

Physical maturity does not equate to psychological maturity. One of the horrible and tragic consequences of not having the psychological maturity to handle the responsibilities of child rearing is child abuse and, sadly, infant deaths.

While such tragedy is not limited by age, all too frequently one or the other parent in these cases is a minor who was unable to cope with the demands of parenthood.

While sex education, information about birth control, and easy access to contraception are all important measures, would we be fulfilling our duty to protect the young if we did not do more?

Our laws are directed to preventing the most obvious cases of child exploitation, but if a teen does not have the maturity to give informed consent, then isn’t any case of sexual activity before the age of majority inherently exploitative?

In Canada, we pride ourselves that our labour laws prevent minors from commercial exploitation. We believe child labour to be a Third World issue. Restrictions on employment of anyone under the age of 18 are based upon "the safety, health, or well-being of the child." Shouldn’t sexual consent be the same? We do this in order to prevent commercial exploitation of a minor, and yet would permit sexual exploitation of that same individual, provided they are at least 16.

Some argue that raising the age of consent to 18 is an unfair imposition on an individual’s freedom and dignity and therefore has no justification. But there must necessarily be restrictions on some personal activities, even in a free and democratic society.

The difficult question here is: At what age does a person possess the requisite psychological maturity to make a decision that is truly informed and emotionally mature?

In Canada, we have struck that balance at the age of 18 for most activities that are restricted to adults, except and unless, in some cases, a minor has their parents’ or guardian’s consent. The consequences of early sexual activity in terms of the dangers to the individual’s health and psychological well being are no less significant than those resulting from early alcohol consumption, gambling or commercial exploitation.

There is no valid reason for treating the conditions for sexual consent as being any less important.

Our society does not prohibit minors from engaging in all activities which require "adult" maturity. We are allowed to drive a car at an early age, but only if we can first demonstrate not only the required maturity, but proficiency as well. Could we or would we ever want to establish a similar system of testing and supervision for sexual consent?

Obviously, some objective criterion is required and while age is not the perfect standard, it is the most reasonable and objective standard available.

 

Kelsey Watchman, of Balmoral Hall School was a runner up in the 2009 Glassen High School Ethics Essay Competition. One of Kelsey’s supervising teachers was John Kerr.

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