Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence against children and adolescents, as well as victim-blaming and rape apologism.
A new study out of B.C., Canada (pdf) on whether age of sexual consent laws are actually doing anything to prevent the sexual abuse of young people by adults has acted as an opportunity to engage in a whole host of rape denialism and victim-blaming behavior. The language in framing contained in the report itself certainly didn’t help, and the media apparently decided to run with it:
Children in B.C. who had sex when they were 12 or under are more likely than older teenagers to have had sex first with an adult, according to a shocking new study by Vancouver researchers to be published today in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality.
University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University researchers analyzed data from the Adolescent Health Survey, which polled 29,000 students in Grades 7 to 12 over three months in 2008, the year the federal government increased the age of consent to 16 from 14.
The purpose of the study was to test the government’s reasons for changing the law after 100 years, but what the authors discovered was that the law apparently does not protect the younger kids who are most at risk of sexual abuse. […]
They discovered a shocking 39 per cent of students who first had sex when they were 12 or under said it was with someone age 20 or older. Of those who first had sex when they were 14 or 15, only two to three per cent said it was with someone 20 or older. […]
The numbers were similar for boys (38 per cent) and girls (39 per cent) 12 and under who said their first sex was with an adult.
“Our evidence really doesn’t support that it is the 14-and 15-year-olds who are at greatest risk of having sex with adults. It is the younger teens, and that has always been illegal,” said senior author Elizabeth Saewyc, professor of nursing and adolescent medicine at UBC.
Okay, first of all, I just have to ask: are we allergic to the word rape? Or have we been aiding and abetting rape by covering it up as “sex” for so damn long now that we don’t even know how to properly use the word anymore? Because I’m really fucking tired of pointing out the obvious over and over and over again. A child under the age of 12 — 12!!! — cannot “have sex” with an adult. But as these numbers pretty clearly show, an adult sure can rape hir.
Honestly, it seems the problem is that we don’t even understand what rape is. How can we use the word appropriately if we don’t even know what it means? And it terrifies me to know that we can’t even begin to solve this problem until we do understand what rape means and what consent looks like, within the context of how very, very far away from that point we are. Because here are the “solutions” currently being offered:
In the study report, the authors say additional strategies are needed to protect the kids who are the most vulnerable. They suggest improving education in schools to include information about healthy relationships.
That would include “talking to teens and children about dating and relationships and why older adults might want to date younger teens and why that it is not appropriate,” Miller said. “Also, what does consent mean, and how can we navigate that as teenagers in a relationship?”
Children aged 9, 10, 11, and 12 — and yes, certainly a whole lot younger, too — are being raped by adults. And the “solution” is reportedly to teach those children better about what is an is not appropriate.
It’s enough to make a person break down and cry.
Look, I support sex education, you know I do, including sex education specifically as a means of sexual assault prevention. But such strategies are about two things — firstly, preventing young people from becoming rapists, and secondly, giving young people the tools that may help them to recognize abuse and defend themselves from it.
But teaching young people about how to not rape doesn’t do anything about the adults out there preying on young children. And while giving everyone defense tools is vital, teaching potential victims how to defend themselves is hardly the place to stop. Because sometimes, those tools just aren’t enough, and being able to recognize abuse doesn’t necessarily leave you with an escape mechanism. And always, we shouldn’t have to be defending ourselves in the first place.
Young people aged 12 and under are not the bearers and promoters of rape culture. They are the victims of it. And we cannot “protect” them from it by treating them as though they’re the problem.
As for the question of whether or not the law protects those children who are most at risk of being victims of sexual abuse … no, of course it doesn’t. To the extent that laws act as deterrents to certain kinds of behavior at all, the effect is always limited. The law isn’t protecting children from sexual abuse? It never has. It hasn’t been protecting adult women from rape or intimate partner violence, either. The statistics are mind-boggling and heart-wrenching, across the board. This ineffective nature of our legal system at protecting vulnerable people from abuse is one of the reasons why I think we need to reconsider the system wholly. But the fact is that the law only seeks retribution once harm has been done, not to prevent the harm in the first place.
For that we’re going to need a change in culture, and no, I’m not sure that legislative acts and legal penalties are going to play a large role. A very basic start would be to stop blaming victims by framing the problem as an issue of their “questionable decisions”:
The study found that teenagers aged 14 and 15 do not make more questionable decisions about sex than older adolescents. For instance, very few 14- and 15-year-olds had sex with people outside the “close in age” exemptions.
Dear god, the point of the laws — at least as I understand them, and certainly as they should be — is not to convince young people to not engage in “questionable” behavior, it’s to try to scare off the predators who wish to exploit and harm and abuse them. As I said, laws aren’t hugely effective deterrents to begin with, but no wonder it’s not working here. We can’t even seem to manage to work out who, exactly, the laws are aimed at, what kind of behavior we’re trying to deter (Raping or being raped? Clearly, these questions are difficult!), and who is really to blame.
But I’m telling you, as long as we keep acting like young people, including those who haven’t even yet reached their teenage years, are equal co-conspirators in their own abuse, we’re certainly not going to get anywhere, either within or outside the judicial system.
Image via Lauredhel, through a Creative Commons-Noncommercial-Attribution License