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Increasing sexual consent age may not protect at-risk teens

November 18, 2010

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The government’s 2008 increase in the legal age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 years may not be achieving the intended effects, according to a study by SFU and other researchers in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality.

In a Canadian first, the researchers used population-based data to test the government’s two primary reasons given for changing the law: to protect younger teens from adult sexual exploitation and to prevent bad sexual-health decisions due to immaturity.

But the researchers found it was not 14- to 15-year-olds but children under 13 protected by the existing law who were most likely to report first sex with sexual predators aged 20 years or older.

Thirty-nine percent of teens reporting sex before age 12 had a first sexual partner who was 20 years or older, but only two to three per cent of 14- to 15-year-olds had a first sexual partner aged 20 or older. Nearly half of teens 13 and younger first had sex with someone older than the “close in age exemptions,” already illegal under the old law.

“It’s important to protect children and teens from sexual exploitation,” says SFU adjunct professor of psychology, Elizabeth Saewyc, the study’s senior author. “But changes in laws should be based on evidence, and our evidence suggests this change isn’t going to address the real problem.”

The research team analyzed data from the 2008 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey conducted by Saewyc and the McCreary Centre Society that included more than 29,000 students in Grades 7 to 12.

As for changing the law because younger teens are less responsible, the authors found most teens are not having sex but among those who were, 14- to 15-year-olds were generally making the same responsible decisions as 16- and 17-year-olds.

“The study shows that society needs to do a better job at preventing sexual abuse among children and teens, using strategies that go beyond the legal arena,” says Saewyc. “Laws usually only come into play after the abuse has already happened.”

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