Age of Sexual Consent Law in Canada: Population-Based Evidence for Law and Policy

By Miller, Bonnie B.; Cox, David N. et al. | The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Age of Sexual Consent Law in Canada: Population-Based Evidence for Law and Policy


Miller, Bonnie B., Cox, David N., Saewyc, Elizabeth M., The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality


Abstract: This study evaluated the implications of the 2008 increase in age for sexual consent in Canada using a population health survey of Canadian adolescents. Government rationales for the increase asserted younger adolescents were more likely to experience sexual exploitation and engage in risky sexual behaviour than adolescents 16 and older. Using data from sexually experienced adolescents in the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey (BC AHS, N=6,262; age range 12 - 19; 52% female), analyses documented the scope of first intercourse partners who were not within the 'close in age' exemptions, then compared sexual behaviours of younger teens (14 and 15 years) with older teens (16 and 17) navigating their first year of sexual activity. Comparisons included: forced sex, sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs, multiple partners, condom use, effective contraception use, self-reported sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy involvement. Results showed very few 14- and 15-year-olds had first intercourse partners who were not within the 'close in age' exemptions based on age (boys: < 2%, girls: 3-5%). In contrast, among 12- and 13-year-olds (a group unaffected by the law's change) between 25% arid 50% had first intercourse partners who were not within the 'close in age' exemptions, and almost 40% of teens who first had sex before age 12 reported a first partner age 20 years or more. In their first year of intercourse, 14- and 15-year-olds were slightly more likely to report forced sex and 3 or more partners than older teens, but otherwise made similarly healthy decisions. This study demonstrates the feasibility of evaluating policy using population health data and shows that better strategies are needed to protect children 13 and under from sexual abuse.

Introduction

It is important that public policy be grounded in empirical evidence. Although ideally this takes place before laws or policies are enacted, it is not always possible; however, it is just as important to evaluate existing policy based on the best available information. Evidence-based policy analysis has been used over the years to evaluate a variety of health-related laws, including graduated driver licensing (Fohr, Layde, & Guse, 2005; Wiggins, 2006), firearm restrictions, (Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2009; Shah, Hoffman, Wake, & Marine, 2000), tobacco control (Luke, Stamatakis, & Brownson, 2000), helmet laws (Robinson, 2006; Rodgers, 2002), and sexual health policy (Joyce, Kaestner, & Colman, 2006). The effectiveness of a law or policy can be measured by the health outcomes of the population. This paper provides an evidence-based policy analysis of the 2008 change in Canada's age of sexual consent law, using the federal government's rationale to frame the evaluation.

The new age of sexual consent

For more than 100 years, from 1892 to 2008, the legal age of sexual consent in Canada was 14. Consent in this context is the capacity to understand and agree to engage in partnered sexual activity (Sex Information and Education Council of Canada [SIECCAN], 2010). In 2006, Bill C-22 was put forward in Parliament, to take effect January 1, 2008. This new law has now raised the legal age of consent for non-exploitative sexual activity from 14 to 16. Eighteen remains the age of consent for anal intercourse and exploitative sexual activity, which includes prostitution, pornography, and situations where one individual is in a position of authority over the other individual. Bill C-22 outlined a "close in age" exception for younger adolescents, permitting 14- and 15-years-olds to be able to consent to nonexploitative sexual activity with individuals not more than 5 years older, and 12- and 13-year-olds to consent to non-exploitative sexual activity with adolescents not more than 2 years older (see Fig. 1). In addition, neither partner can be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as this impairs judgement and affects an individual's ability to consent to sexual activity. …

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