It appears that eighteen-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt, who is being prosecuted under the age-of-consent laws for having sex with a fourteen-year-old, is about to face some very serious consequences for her actions. The basis of the age-of-consent laws, like the ones invoked in this case, is that young adolescents are less capable of making healthy sexual decisions than are older adolescents because do not fully comprehend the risks. This particularly appears to be the Kaitlyn Hunt case given the (alleged) contention on the part of the younger girl’s parents that she is incapable of understanding the implications of entering into a same-sex relationship and, as a result, requires the protection of the law.
Age-of-consent laws impose high costs in terms of the personal hardship on the youth caught up in that enforcement (on both sides of the courtroom). So there must be pretty good evidence that younger teens are less capable of making healthily sexual decisions than are slightly older teens who are free to choose the nature of their own sexual relationships, right?
Not exactly and, in fact, comprehensive research using data collected from 26,000 high school students in British Columbia found that the sexual decision making of those who became sexually active when they were 14 to 15 years old was no worse than those who became sexually active when they were 16 to 17 years old.
The researchers found that youth ages 14 to 15 are almost exclusively having sex with people who are within their own age group; less than 3% of sexually active 14-year-olds, and 6% of sexually active 15-year-olds, had a sexual partner over the age of 18.
Given the fact that at the time this data was collected the relevant age-of-consent was fourteen, it appears that strictly enforcing an age sixteen age-of-consent would do very little to reduce the over-all level of sexual activity of teens up to two years younger.
But are younger youth less capable of assessing the risks associated with sex compared than are older youths unprotected by the laws?
Young youth in this study were equally likely as the older (16-17) group to have sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol (which one quarter of them did during their most recent sexual experience). Males in the younger group were significantly more likely to report having used a condom in their last intercourse (83% compared to 74%) and younger females who were using a hormone contraceptive method were significantly more likely than the older group to use a condom in addition.
About 5% of both groups were involved in a pregnancy with no statistically significant difference between younger and older teens. There is likewise no statistical difference in the reporting of STIs.
So it appears that younger youth are just as capable of making healthy sexual decisions as are older youth, and yet they are treated differently under the law.
Would I feel comfortable with my fourteen-year-old being in a sexual relationship with an eighteen-year-old? No, I wouldn’t. But my discomfort, of that of any another parent, should not be the basis on which public policy is determined. It’s important that the age-of-consent is set based empirical evidence clearly demonstrating that youth below that age are incapable of giving informed consent.
Put another way, is Kaitlyn Hunt’s girlfriend any less capable of consenting to their relationship than she would have been had she been sixteen instead? I don’t have the answer to that question. I do know this, in an environment where Kaitlyn Hunt is under house arrest, presumably because she is perceived to be a threat to society, there is probably no room for academic discussions. But while we are having a public debate on the appropriateness of the specific charges against her, we should consider the appropriateness of the laws on which they are based.
Miller, Bonnie; David Cox and Elizabeth Saewyc (2010) “Age of sexual consent law in Canada: Population-based evidence for law and policy” Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Vol. 19 (3).