Sexual consent changes will exclude teen trysts

Janice Tibbetts, CanWest News Service Published: Friday, June 02, 2006

OTTAWA -- The federal government's imminent plans to raise the age of sexual consent to 16 from the current 14 will include exceptions to allow young teens to have sex with others who are no more than five years older.

Also, 14- and 15-year-olds who are married will be permitted to have relations with their partner, regardless of the age gap.

The exemptions, confirmed by a government official, are designed to prevent criminalization of sex between young lovers, while focusing on protecting 14- and 15-year-olds from older predators, particularly on the Internet.

The proposed law, to be introduced in the next couple of weeks, would permit 14-year-olds to have sex with 19-year-olds and 15-year-olds with 20-year-olds.

The children's advocacy group Beyond Borders, which has lobbied intensely for Canada to increase the legal age for having sex, supports a "close-in-age" exemption, said founder Rosalind Prober.

"We don't want law enforcement at the high schools, so you have to put a pretty good gap there," said Prober.

Justice Minister Vic Toews, when he was opposition justice critic, pushed for a new law that would include a five-year gap. Joe Comartin, the NDP's justice critic, has said his party supports raising the age of consent.

Under the current law, young people under age 14 are generally deemed to be too young to consent to any form of sexual contact, from kissing to intercourse, but there is already an exemption of two years in the Criminal Code, so that it is not illegal for 14-year-olds to have sex with 12-year-olds, nor 15-year-olds with 13-year-olds.

In another glitch when crafting a new law, British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories allow 14- and 15-year-olds who are parents or expectant parents to wed with the permission of a judge or a doctor, according to provincial websites. Most other provinces outlaw marriage under age 16.

The legislation will contain a provision to ensure that legally marrieds are not included in the new sex ban. It is not known how many 14- and 15-year-olds marry each year, since statistics are not published that way, but the numbers are believed to be extremely small.

The pending legislation is drawing criticism from several national groups, who say there is no solid reason to alter a legal age that has been in place since 1892.

The Canadian AIDS Society, Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere and the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (formerly Planned Parenthood), argue that a new law is not needed because the former Liberal government recently passed legislation making it illegal for people in positions of authority or trust to have sex with a person under age 18.

The groups accuse the new Conservative government of trying to legislate morality, a move they say would drive teen sex underground and even make young people more vulnerable to sexual predators.

Linda Capperauld, executive director of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, said that the new law will remove discretion for judges to decide whether a teen in being exploited.

"I think so much depends on the circumstances and the level of maturity," she said.

"We are concerned that for 14- and 15 year-olds, once that activity is illegal, they will no longer seek out the medical care, contraception and protection against STIs (sexually transmitted infections), even some assistance around decision-making around their relationships."

The Liberals, who pondered raising the age of consent for years, eventually abandoned the idea, opting instead for legislation that focused on criminalizing the behaviour of the predator. The Bloc Quebecois sided with the Liberals on the issue and intends to oppose the Conservative bill.

Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) says that the government is discriminating against gay men by refusing to change the legal age for anal sex, which is 18.

"Whatever the age of consent is, it should be equal for all forms of sexual activity because we believe it constitutes discrimination against gay men," said Ariel Troster, vice-president of the EGALE board.

© CanWest News Service 2006