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To consent or not to consent - Is age the question?

By Rose Cooper - posted Monday, 7 March 2005


The Big Question of the age of consent conjures up a multi-faceted diamond of perspectives. When held under the harsh light of scrutiny it refracts a rainbow of further questions. Here are just a few.

  • Exactly who are we protecting … and what are we protecting them from?
  • Who decided on 16 being the magic age in the first place, and what criteria factored into that decision?
  • Why do the Liberals in WA feel that a 16-year-old heterosexual boy is more equipped to grapple with The Big Question than a homosexual of the same age?
  • When a middle aged mathematics teacher from Central Coast NSW engaged in a full blown affair with his 17-year-old student … it was deemed unethical, but it was perfectly legal.

It was legal, but was it right?

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The variables of The Big Question are too numerous to be dealt with by selecting an arbitrary chronological barometer as a quantitative guide. The decision to consent to sex - regardless of one’s age - isn’t the same decision for everyone. Ostensibly, we are protecting minors from being morally corrupted by adults - but shouldn’t the age of the senior member of the sexual liaison also be taken into consideration as well? In my view, the bigger question is: How big a gap in the comparative ages of the sexual participants is too big?

If we’re protecting young people from being misled, manipulated and being taken advantage of by older people, is 16 really the age that our gullibility evaporates into thin air? I am categorically not a prude, but a man in his 50s having a relationship with a 17-year-old girl or boy, affronts my sense of decency. So, the biggest question of them all is: Of what level of maturity is the age of 16 supposed to be the signpost? Physical, sexual, emotional or spiritual maturity?

I was none of these things at 16. At 18 I was physically and sexually mature (and active) but not emotionally or spiritually mature, so most of the many sexual encounters I had back then left me feeling used, empty and sometimes distressed. I’m just using myself as a common example. Does the random age of 16 take everything into account that needs to be taken into account?

However, some young women are sexually, emotionally and spiritually mature at 16, even younger. Sexual maturity means nothing. The question of consent has to be about the mental capacity to make an informed choice, which is so individual. I surveyed women about their earliest sexual encounters and asked “if you knew then what you know now, how would you have done things differently?” At least half of the women who confessed to having been sexually active before the age of 16 replied, “I would have made sure I enjoyed myself more”. Morals weren’t the issue as far as they were concerned, just the lack of awareness they had about their own sexuality and their power.

The act of sexual intercourse can have many meanings, for many individuals, and within each individual - depending on their moral viewpoint and their mood at the time. Age can be totally irrelevant.

Consider still more questions. If a 15-year-old initiates sex with a 20-year-old, the 20-year-old is held accountable - but what if the 15-year-old is a more intelligent and well-rounded person than the 20-year-old. What if the 20-year-old has fallen head over heels in love, but the 15-year -old is just using them for sex? Up until that last question I’m betting that you were picturing a 20-year old-man with a 15-year-old girl. After all, the reverse seldom happens. Why? Well that’s off topic.

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It’s even rarer to find 25-plus year old women having sex with teenaged boys - so our judicial system thinks it’s a bit of a joke when it actually does happen. The age of consent is virtually irrelevant when the minor is a physically mature male - regardless of the age of the female. In this equation society seems reluctant to take the same moral high ground. But why isn’t a 15-year-old boy, irregardless of desire for older women and his ability to ejaculate, still considered to be someone who needs protecting from a self-centered, predatory female?

And then it dawns …

Could it be … that the age of consent has really always been about the age of the female more than it has been about the age of the male? The prevailing opinion is obviously that sexual urges couldn’t be as demanding in a girl of 15 as in a boy of 15. That would be anarchy … surely! Please note the sarcasm.

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About the Author

Rose Cooper is a freelance writer and actor who has contributed to many national publications over the past 20 years. She was Australian Women's Forum Magazine's most prolific contributor as well as their Sex Advice Columnist. Her areas of expertise include comedy, women's health and sexuality issues, relationships, theatre and pop culture. For more of Rose's articles visit: www.insiderose.com

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