Queer and Youth-Led Groups Say 'No' to Age of Consent Changes
Motivation behind bill is a distaste for young people having sex, groups tell Senators
Brent Creelman / Xtra.ca / Friday, February 22, 2008
Raising the age of consent is a veiled attempt to assert conservative moral values on youth, queer and youth-led groups told Senators today.
The Senate's legal affairs committee is studying a Harper government bill that would raise the age of consent from 14 to 16. It will almost certainly pass — no political party has opposed it — but queer and youth-led groups came out Feb 22 to insist on their sexual freedom.
The proposed changes will have a disproportionate impact on gays, said Richard Hudler of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario.
"My first lover was 17 years older than me. And this is common [among gay people]," he said. "It is dangerous — considering the attitude toward sexual orientation in schools — for a young person to attempt to make sexual contact with a peer."
Other presenters pushed that point home: changing Canada's consent laws will only punish those in consensual relationships. Despite the government rhetoric of "protecting the youth", the proposed consent laws do little to actually protect youth, presenters argued.
"It won't stop real sexual abuse," said Nick Dodds of the Age of Consent Committee, a youth-led group.
Research shows most sexual abuse overwhelmingly occurs within the family, said Hudler. Raising the age of consent does nothing to protect youth in that situation, he noted.
Queer groups also spoke against the discriminatory age of consent for anal sex. Under Canada's Criminal Code, anal sex is only legal if both individuals are 18 years old. The Commons justice committee had a chance to strike down the law last year, but the chair — Conservative MP Art Hanger — refused.
"This factor sends a strong message to the gay community that hostility toward same-sex relationships is a motivating factor behind this legislation," said Hudler.
"The bill is homophobic," agreed Jeremy Dias, executive director of Jer's Vision, a youth group that seeks to end discrimination in schools. "Why can't a gay male youth make sexual decisions until he's 18?"
Perhaps most exciting was that youth overcame the barriers posed by the Parliamentary process to speak at the Senate committee.
"I'm here today to tell you that this is not what youth want," said Dodds, 19, who argued that more proactive attempts should have been made to hear from youth.
During the question and answer period, Conservative Senator Terry Stratton played into the fear of child exploitation, saying that parents are "petrified" about luring, particularly on the Internet. He also said tougher consent laws are needed to stop youth from being pulled into prostitution.
But Cheryl Milne of the Justice for Children and Youth set him straight.
"The example you gave is, quite frankly, already illegal," she responded. "We don't need more draconian laws that take away from the nuances and target youth."
The Senate will continue hearings on the Conservative government's omnibus crime bill — which include the age of consent changes — until at least Feb 25.
NDP & Liberal cowards
DARING TOGETHER / Age of consent bill will pass because no party has the integrity to do what's right
Gareth Kirkby / Xtra.ca / Wednesday, February 20, 2008
I bet you know the answer to this: who is most likely to sexually exploit a child or a teen?
That's right: a member of his or her family. Dad or mom, sister or brother.
Not a stranger.
You already knew that, didn't you? Perhaps you've seen the studies. Perhaps it happened to you or your lover or a friend.
Most of us know this. But lawmakers act as if they don't. Judging by acts before Parliament, including the current omnibus crime bill that the Harper government is attempting to ram through the Senate under threat of fighting an election on crime issues, you'd think strangers were exploiting our youth in large numbers.
When was the last time you saw a politician call for closer monitoring of families to protect children from sexual abuse?
Why such dissonance between actual crime statistics and the laws our governments pass?
Many of you will say that it's about the Harper government. That the Reform-Conservatives have an ideological investment in propagandizing on behalf of the nuclear family along with creating a fear of crime, of our neighbours and strangers.
Fair enough. But that doesn't explain the Liberals and NDP behaviour over the past few years. The Conservatives are far from alone in this idiocy. It was Paul Martin's Liberal government that put through the so-called child-luring bill, which they claimed would protect children but instead harasses artists and writers and people having consensual sex. It completely misses the mark. Harper claimed in the middle of the 2004 election that Martin was 'soft' on child porn. When the Liberals won, they responded by censoring artists. How brave; that'll teach the Conservatives to call them names!
And the NDP? They voted for Martin's censorship legislation, even though artists and librarians, actors and playwrights, civil libertarians and gay activists begged them (and the Liberals) not to. No better than the Liberals. No more concerned with getting it right than the Conservatives.
And now they're doing it again. Gay youth, AIDS groups, Planned Parenthood and civil libertarians all spoke out against raising the age of sexual consent to age 16 from age 14, while keeping anal sex at 18. A few lonely Liberals and NDPers spoke out against it in Parliament last year.
But only one, gay NDP MP Bill Siksay, had the courage to vote against it. Only one among all the Liberal and NDP parliamentarians. And guess what? The NDP disciplined him for breaking ranks. Only one MP had the courage of his convictions, was able to get real and talk about the causes of crime and the stupidity of criminalizing youth for having sex.
And what about the Liberals and NDPers representing ridings with lots of gays and lesbians, politicians who ask for your support? They weren't there when the chips were down. Our youth were abandoned by NDP MPs Libby Davies (who abstained) Paul Dewar (who voted in favour) and Jack Layton (who whipped the caucus to support it), along with Liberals Hedy Fry and Bill Graham (who were absent or abstained.)
My blood curdled when Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings openly endorsed raising the age of consent. And for many the biggest heartbreak was her NDP counterpart, Joe Comartin, who not only spoke out for the age increase, but also quoted Catholic youth in defence of his position. Quoting Catholic youth: is that what the NDP has been reduced to? Comartin's other main claim to fame is starting a religious caucus in Parliament — so much for separation of Church and State.
Right now, the consent bill is in the Senate. Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs is running an impressive opposition to it. Three queer and youth groups will speak against it, including the Age of Consent Committee, the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario and Jer's Vision. It will pass anyway.
It will pass, despite the fact it does not address the causes of exploitation of youth by family members. It will pass even though it criminalizes youth sexuality. It will pass even though it will lead to more pregnancy, more STIs and more HIV — and still leave youth at the mercy of abuse by family members. It will pass because no party has the integrity to do what's right.
We live in a time when politicians of all stripes vote for legislation that does harm rather than address the real issues that dog our society. We live in a time when even those who wrap themselves in the rainbow flag for gay pride parades shirk from the tough issues that require unpopular decisions. And sell out our youth.
than ending a marriage, according to the lawyers I've chatted with. But it's still hard and folks often end up in court. Proponents of common-law arrangements tout its easy-out status as one of its advantages over marriages.
But with the nest of obligations for both same-sex and common-law partners growing, dumping your beloved has never been harder.
If we could get politicians to fix divorce, maybe they'd drop some of the dumb things they're hung up on. In Canada, we have a long history of poorly-crafted, wrong-headed, anti-sex bills that purport to "protect children." But strengthening divorce would far more effective at protecting kids than the bills politicians offer.
Case in point: Parliament resumes this week and with it the ongoing debate over Canada's age of consent (currently 14 except for anal sex.) The bill has been introduced twice under Prime Minster Stephen Harper's fragile minority government, first as a standalone bill which died this spring, and a second time as part of an omnibus justice package which currently waits in the Senate slushpile.
Bills to raise the age of consent have been persistent for most of the last 10 years. The previous attempt was a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Nina Grewal. Her bill was opposed by the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. Now, because of the changing winds of Parliament — and a five-year near-age exemption — all parties support it, and shame on them.
The ostensible reason given by Parliament is the protection of children (although, of course, we're talking about teens, not children). It's a rationale that the bill shares with Paul Martin's unnecessary and dangerous teen "luring" bill from 2004 and Kim Campbell's 1993 anti-porn law. Each was also a sop for votes by governing parties in a precarious electoral position.
The very fact that these bills — as foolish as they each are — were so widely popular is proof that Canadians want to rigorously protect young people. But if politicians were really serious about it, they'd look elsewhere.
On the cusp of Ontario's first Family Day, it does us well to remember that the most likely person to abuse a child is a member of her or his family. News reports from the US suggest that 27 percent of women and 15 percent of men were sexually abused as children — by family members.
I'm the last person to suggest that major US news outlets are anything but alarmist, but those are grim numbers.
Meanwhile, because politicians would rather deal with stranger danger, we focus on hamhanded intitiatives. For example, prosecuting the "luring" of teenagers and age of consent offenders is often the result of complaints by parents who don't approve of their teen's consensual sexual choices — a mindset that's often fuelled by homophobia on the part of parents. Combined with anti-sex law enforcement, you get a formula for vilifying gays, particularly gay men.
And all the while, kids remain in abusive situations because parents (often abused themselves) don't leave bad (heterosexual) family situations. Emotionally, it's hard enough. The economic punishment is also crippling, since shared living arrangements are obviously cheaper than maintaining separate households.
Add to that a legal framework that puts separated and divorcing couples through a multi-year, confrontational, expensive legal battle, and the result is families that stay together for all the wrong reasons, sometimes with tragic results.
Rather than oblige partners to support each other forever after a marriage ends, the Feds should strengthen transitional funds — social assistance, childcare, retraining — to help the dispossessed get back on their feet.
Gays have long advocated an "easy in, easy out" attitude toward relationships. It's a model that keeps many in our community from enduring the grinding unhappiness of broken relationships. It's worth advocating on those grounds alone, but since the Feds are fishing for votes by way of their child protection rhetoric, let's point them at divorce rather than age of consent. It would be the most significant child protection measure we've seen in years.
Carstairs, Siksay oppose consent bill
FEDERAL POLITICS / Don't criminalize youth sex, pair say
Brent Creelman / Xtra.ca / Thursday, February 14, 2008
Under pressure from the House of Commons, the Senate is racing through its study of the Harper government's omnibus crime bill, but a few loud voices are making sure the proposed age of consent changes do not pass without debate.
On Feb 11, the House adopted a motion calling on the Senate to pass the government's Tackling Violent Crime Act, which includes an increase in the age of consent from 14 to 16. The motion gives the Senate a Mar 1 deadline, and it carried with support from the Bloc Quebecois. If the Senate does not pass the bill in time, the Conservatives have said they will call an election.
But that won't stop Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs from calling attention to the "bizarre" proposal to change Canada's age of consent laws.
"The Minister of Justice would have you believe that this [bill] is going to save young women and young men from sexual exploitation," she says. "But this is about saying to a 15-year-old that you cannot have consensual sex, you cannot have touching, you cannot have a kiss, anything with anyone that is more than five years older, or you're going to find yourself being charged."
"The public perception is that somehow if we raise age of consent from 14 to 16, all of our young women and men are going to be immediately saved from sexual exploitation," Carstairs told the committee Feb 13.
Carstairs is also concerned that the bill will prevent youth from seeking out sexual health information. She says a 15-year-old who has a partner more than five years older may not report STIs in order to avoid criminalizing their older partner.
Unfortunately, it's a hard sell to the public, particularly when the government is playing word games with the legislation, playing into the fear of paedophilia. The Tories began using the "age of protection" in place of "age of consent," reinforcing the fear that youth are not capable of making smart decisions about their own sexuality.
So far, the Senate committee has heard from lawyers and statisticians, but next week, at least one youth-led group is scheduled to make a presentation.
Nick Dodds, 19, of the youth-led Age of Consent Committee will speak on Feb 22.
"Youth have been conspicuously absent from this process," he says. "Parliamentary process is hostile to young people. They have school, family, and part-time jobs to worry about. Most of those between the ages of 14 and 18 can't even afford to get up there to make a submission. A more proactive attempt to consult young people should have been made."
Queer groups have also applied to speak at the committee — both the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario and Jer's Vision have been slated for presentations on Feb 22.
The age of consent for anal sex is 18 under Canada's Criminal Code, and the House of Commons justice committee — chaired by Conservative MP Art Hanger — refused to amend the bill to repeal that discriminatory law.
Carstairs has expressed concern that the rush to get the bill through the Senate may prevent a thorough debate.
"Witnesses are being contacted," she says, "but I suspect that we won't hear from all of the witnesses we want to hear from, simply because we won't have time."
Read more about the age of consent issue:
Tories 'bullying' Senate to pass crime bill
Xtra.ca's age of consent action centre
Siksay spanked for position
POLITICS / Queer MP officially castigated for opposing crime bill
Marcus McCann / Xtra.ca / Thursday, February 14, 2008
The lone MP to vote against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's omnibus crime bill has been "disciplined" by his party. Queer NDPer Bill Siksay was outvoted 221-1 in Nov 26 2007 on the Conservative bill, which includes provisions to raise the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16.
Siksay went public with the knuckle-wrapping in the February issue of the Burnaby Douglas Link, his constituency newsletter.
"I decided that for reasons of conscience and despite the decision of my leader that all NDP MPs would be required to vote for the omnibus crime bill that I had to vote against it," he writes. "Because I departed from the position of the leader and caucus I was disciplined."
In the letter, he details what he called "serious challenges to longstanding principles of our justice system" pertaining to bill C-2. Those include tying the hands of trial judges, the introduction of a reverse onus for dangerous offender designations, and that the bill "criminalized sexual activity for some 15 and 16 year olds."
Efforts to raise the age of consent have formerly been opposed by the NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois. All three parties now officially support raising the age of consent.
Still, individual MPs have vocally opposed the measure, primarily because of fears it will limit access to sexual health services and be used by conservative school boards to delay teaching sex ed. Those MPs, including NDP MP Libby Davies and Liberal MP Hedy Fry, were absent or abstained from the Nov vote.
"Despite the tone of the debate when most opposition speakers outlined serious problems with the legislation, I was the only MP to actually vote against the bill," he says.
"In our Parliamentary system, there are really only two choices when it comes to a vote: a vote in favour or a vote against. While some MPs choose to abstain as an indication that they had serious reservations about a bill, an abstention is not recorded. In our system, when you abstain, it looks as though you were absent for the vote.