VANCOUVER — An increase in Canada’s age of consent law from 14 to 16 was supposed to protect teens from sexual exploitation, but a new study suggests the legislation may not be helping kids who are most at risk.
The federal government’s rationale for changing the law in 2008 was to protect 14- and 15-year-olds from adult sexual predators and to prevent adolescents from making poor sexual decisions.
But Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor of nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, said children younger than 13 are actually at greatest risk of exploitation because they’re most likely to have had sex with adults.
The study is based on data collected from the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey, which included more than 29,000 students provincewide from Grades 7 to 12.
“The gist of our finding is that the two reasons that the government gave for changing the law may not be supporting the law,” Saewyc said about the study that was published Tuesday in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. “We found that only two to three per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds had sex with adults but in contrast 39 per cent of teens who first had sex at age 12 or younger had sex with someone who was 20 years old or older.”
The former law came into effect in 1892 and already protected adolescents younger than 13, Saewyc said.
“The change in law isn’t going to change anything for them,” she said of the study’s analysis, which also involved a Simon Fraser University researcher.
However, many police departments praised the Conservative government when it introduced the law, saying it provided another tool to nab predators who lure youngsters via the Internet.
The adolescent survey, which has been conducted every five or six years since 1992 by the McCreary Centre Society, opens a window on the world of teenage sex trends in British Columbia.
We’re not seeing huge numbers of 14-year-olds compared to 16-year-olds having sex with adults,” she said. “The kids who are much more vulnerable to having sex with adults are 13, 12 and even younger. So that’s clearly an issue.”
According to the survey, about 37 per cent of children were having sex before age 14 in 1992, compared to 19 per cent in 2008, Saewyc said.
“There’s also an increased level of condom use among sexually active adolescents, according to the 2008 survey.
Saewyc said that may be in part due to parental involvement and sex education classes, which need to also focus on sexual exploitation by adults.
Most sex education classes focus on physiology, puberty and “plumbing” without venturing into sexual exploitation, she said.
“There are certainly some curricula that deal with sexual violence but they’re not necessarily talking to 12-year-olds. They may be talking to students in Grade 9 but that’s 14 and 15 years old.”
Rather than increasing the age of consent, the government should have focused on better ways to raise awareness about the existing law and enforce it better, Saewyc said.
Alex McKay, spokesman for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said sexual health education is a small component of the health curriculum at most schools across the country.
He said that along with teaching younger kids about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy prevention, sex education classes need to include sexual exploitation, especially in the age of the Internet.
Canada’s age of consent law includes a “close-in-age” exemption, allowing sexual activity between adolescents as young as 14 with those less than five years older.
The aim is to avoid criminalizing sexual experimentation by teens with their peers, but provide a way to prosecute older adults who prey on youngsters.