First published on Saturday the 2nd of April, 2016, this piece comes in at number 19 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.
This week five young Opotiki men were discharged without conviction for having sex with 14 and 15-year-old girls. They were 17-18 at the time. For anyone who either is a teenager, or has been a teenager in recent memory, the idea that 14 and 15-year-olds are having sex is most certainly not news. In the eyes of the law, however, it can constitute criminal activity.
Over recent days commentators have pondered whether New Zealand should lower its age of consent. Currently, it is illegal to have sex with someone under the age of 16. In the aftermath of the Opotiki case, Justice Minister Amy Adams said that she has no intention of lowering the age of consent at any time soon.
Is she out of touch with teen life in 2016? Probably. Is her refusal to consider lowering the age of consent wrong? Maybe not. While many teens are undoubtedly having sex before they hit the age of consent, there are also many who are doing so without access to comprehensive sexuality education. Even if it were possible for under-16s to consent, it’s debatable whether they could give informed consent.
There are quite a few questions that need to be asked before we consider whether we should lower the age of consent. Questions like: for all of the 14-year-olds who are having sex, how many are doing so because they feel pressured by their partner, or because ‘everyone else is doing it’? How many know about the proper use of contraception? How many feel comfortable asking their partner to wear a condom? How many know that consent is not simply the absence of a ‘no’?
In an age where porn is readily available to teens, how many know that blowjobs and anal sex are not simply an expectation? How many know that they can say ‘no’ at any time, even when sex has already started? How many teenaged girls know that they deserve to derive pleasure from sex, and that their boyfriend’s orgasm isn’t the sole main event? How many know that you can contract HIV through unprotected oral sex? I didn’t know that one until I had a frank discussion with my GP at age 22.
How many teenagers know that sex can mean different things to different people? How many young women know that having sex with a partner who’s on a different page about their relationship can be emotionally devastating?
How many 14-year-old girls know to go to the bathroom after sex to avoid contracting a UTI? How many know that a condom can only be used once? How many know that you need to use barrier contraception if you’re on the pill and taking antibiotics? Or that the pill doesn’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections and diseases?
The age of consent is out of date, there’s no doubt about it, but the real discussion we need to be having is about how prepared teenagers are to be having sex. As a society, we have a responsibility to ensure that our young people are safe. We also have a responsibility to protect our young people from much older predators. In my humble opinion, lowering the age of consent without drastically improving our sexuality education is a recipe for disaster.