Age of consent laws were purportedly created in order to protect innocent children against the sexual advances of unscrupulous adults. The justification for such laws is that people under a certain age are unable to consent to sexual activity as they are unable to understand fully the ramifications and long-term effects of their actions. Furthermore, many believe that these laws serve as a deterrent to child molesters and child rapists. While in some cases, this may be true, age of consent laws do much more harm than good for the following reasons:
- They criminalize consensual sexual activity between adults and young people.
- They arbitrarily discriminate against mature young people.
- They give the impression that sexual activity by children is bad.
- They do not deter child molesters and child rapists.
The History of Consent Laws
Age of consent laws are a relatively new phenomenon. Most industrialized nations did not have such laws in the nineteenth century, or the age of consent was extremely low. In the United States, the age of consent ranged between ten and twelve in many states and as low as seven (Delaware). Age of consent laws were raised for two primary reasons: to curb the prevalence of child prostitution (Britain) and to allow puritan reformers to impose their standard of morality on the entire population (United States).
While one may agree with the attempts by the authorities to curb child prostitution (and other forms of child exploitation prevalent in that period), the method employed must be seen as flawed. Rather than raising the age of consent for all people, including those engaging in consensual activities not for financial gain, they ought to have adopted laws which raised the legal age for prostitutes only. Such a law was recently introduced in Japan, where the age of consent remains thirteen, while prostitutes must be at least eighteen.
It is more difficult, however, to accept that a group of religious reformers was allowed to push through laws which furthered their agenda. In a country which provides for full religious freedom for all and a strict separation of church and state, the moral agendas of individual groups should not be allowed to become law. Yet this is precisely what happened in this case, and in many other cases throughout American history. Indeed, the power of the religious right is again waxing, and citizens now need to stand up and fight for their rights lest they see them once again curtailed by a small yet influential minority.
Age of consent laws assume that some persons are unable to understand the consequences or ramifications of their actions, and therefore unable to think or make decisions for themselves. This assumption is both foolish and dangerous, as it removes the burden of responsibility from the individual and places it in the hands of the state. Rather than making a decision on a person’s capacity to make decisions about sexual consent with such laws, the emphasis should be upon ensuring that all persons are adequately educated.
Medical research has definitively proven that young people are indeed sexual beings from a very young age. Furthermore, sociological research has shown us that young people become interested in sex at an early age and engage in a wide variety of sexual games as part of their sexual development. Schools and parents, rather than burying their heads in the sand, need to proactively address the issue by providing earlier and more comprehensive sexual education to young people. In order to do so, they need to adopt a healthier attitude towards sex. This primarily means turning away from the puritan morality which has pervaded thought for too long already and viewing sex as something natural and beautiful rather than dirty or nasty.
Demystifying sex will achieve two major things. Firstly, it will allow young people to discuss their sexual feelings openly in an atmosphere of trust and openness, so that they are able to receive correct and complete information. This in turn will reduce the need for young people to experiment with their sexuality in secrecy, and reduce the likelihood that they will engage in high-risk sexual behaviors. Secondly, it will empower young people to make wise decisions about their sexuality including the providing of informed consent to sexual activities with a partner of their choice, whether it be peer or adult, same or opposite sex.
How Consent Laws Discriminate
It is truly a ludicrous notion that all young people mature at the same rate, and that the state can effectively determine at which age a young person is ready to become sexually active. While it is true that some young people may not be prepared to engage in sexual relations, many are prepared and should not be discriminated against by excessive state regulation. Why should sexual activity be illegal for a mature young person who understands what he or she is doing as well as understanding the risks and advantages of doing so?
The silliness of attempts at such state regulation is made evident by the wide range of ages of consent in effect throughout the world. While in the United States, the age of consent remains high, usually from sixteen to eighteen, in neighboring Canada, the age of consent is fourteen, while in Mexico it is twelve. European ages of consent also tend to be lower than in the United States, with an age of consent of fourteen in Italy, thirteen in Spain and twelve in the Netherlands.
It is evident that such legislation is based very much on popular perception and very little on facts. What makes a twelve-year old Dutch girl any more capable of deciding about sex than a twelve-year old American girl? Is a seventeen-year old California girl so stupid that she must be ‘protected’ until she is eighteen whilst her counterpart in Italy could have already been doing it for four years by the time she reaches her eighteenth birthday? The simple answer is that such arbitrary legislation cannot be effective and is very discriminatory and ought to be repealed.
Irrelevant in Cases of Molestation or Rape
Although many believe that age of consent laws serve as a deterrent to those who would molest, abduct or rape young people, this is simply not true. Those who wish to engage in these activities will do them whether they are illegal or not. This is not to say that there should not be laws which make certain activities illegal, simply that age of consent laws do not address the issue of these activities. There are already laws which make molestation, abduction and rape criminal offenses, and these can be applied even in cases where the victim is a young person. Age of consent laws, however, deal solely with the issue of consensual sex, and thus cannot be applied in cases where the sexual activity was forced or coerced.
If we as a society wish to address the problem of the molestation and rape of young people, we need to look at different types of laws. Firstly, we ought to strengthen existing laws regarding these offenses, as well as making more severe the punishments for perpetrating these types of crimes. We also need to look carefully at the types of offenders perpetrating these crimes more carefully. While public perception erroneously believes that many of these crimes are carried out by strangers, statistics show that the vast majority of these crimes are perpetrated by the young person’s immediate family, extended family or by close family friends.
Many of these crimes go unreported because of fears by the victims of shame, embarrassment and the fear of unwanted publicity and retribution by the perpetrator. Therefore, we need to adopt strict guidelines to restrict media reporting of such offenses as well as to afford the utmost level of protection to the victims. This being said, it is important for us also to limit the ability of over-zealous authorities from deciding themselves what is best for the affected families in such cases and acting unilaterally without having consulted the affected family first. Oftentimes, the removal of a perpetrator can be extremely traumatic and economically de-stabilizing. If the crime is not severe and the perpetrator shows remorse and a true desire to be rehabilitated, a suspended sentence as well as a program of counseling therapy may be a wiser choice than incarceration.
The age of consent throughout the United States has been gradually rising over the last century. The primary force behind these laws is religious zealots who wish to impose their morals on the entire nation. These laws unfairly discriminate against both children and their lovers and create an atmosphere of fear and secrecy around an activity which should be open and joyful. With proper education, we can empower our youth to make wise decisions about their bodies. Legislation should be limited to regulating and punishing criminal behavior. Age of consent laws do not and should not address the action of criminal activities against young people. Other laws, however, do and should provide for the severe punishment of these crimes.