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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Yes, no, maybe—the age of sexual consent

Phoebe Gloeckner had sex with her mother’s boyfriend when she was 15 years old. She wrote a graphic novel based on her experience, and now you can watch the movie version, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. It’s a terrific coming-of-age story, with a strong, sexy, creative girl who takes charge of her own life.

Friends in California just found out to their horror that their 13-year-old daughter has been in a relationship with a middle-aged man for many months. Sexting, photos, emails, maybe meetings…they’re not sure. Now he’s in jail.

At what age is it okay to have a sexual relationship?

I hate the idea of legislating sexuality—it’s so anti-choice. But I do like the idea of protecting children from creeps. It’s complicated. If you don’t believe in sex outside marriage, then please feel free to move on to the next article. Otherwise, join me in considering the intricacies of “the age of consent".

The age of consent refers to the age at which the government says you can have sex. Traditionally, families and societies have determined the parameters. For girls, it’s often tied up with puberty, since we still refuse to acknowledge that sex is meant for anything other than procreation. I’ve met married toddlers in Kutch who were waiting to be shipped off to their in-laws’ houses the moment they began to menstruate. In ancient Greece, it was perfectly acceptable for older men to initiate adolescents into sexuality.

Keep in mind that most age-of-consent laws refer to heterosexual sex: In 75 countries, it’s illegal for you to have sex with someone of the same gender whether you’re 15 or 105. So for the purposes of this rumination, we’re going to stick to hetero sex.

In India, the age of consent is 18. Most places in the US set it at between 16 and 18. In Angola, it’s 12. Canada says 16, but 14- and 15-year-olds can have sex with someone who is up to five years older. Argentina sets the bar at 13. In Iran, you have to be married to have sex. So, technically, you can be the 60-year-old husband of a 14-year-old bride and have sex with her, but if you’re a 30-year-old who wants to have a lover of the same age, that’s illegal. Sweden’s age of consent is 15 across the board, and this has led to inconsistent judgements in cases of teenagers having sex with each other. Just as with most laws involving sexuality, the whole thing can get head-scratchingly bizarre: For instance, one US law forbids American citizens under 18 from having sex with under-age foreigners, but not with other young citizens. Some laws legislate different ages for different kinds of sex… It goes on.

Laws are one thing, how they’re applied is another. Flavia Agnes has written passionately about how a significant number of rape cases in India are filed by minor girls’ parents against their daughters’ boyfriends. So whose consent are we talking about?

Growing up, we female cousins referred to a certain uncle as Chester the Molester. He liked to fondle young girls, and we hated it, but the idea of using the law against him would have been incomprehensible to any of us, or our parents. There’s law, and there’s culture—family culture (Son X is more important than Daughter Y), religious culture (sex before marriage is wrong), broken culture (in a war, who cares about normal standards?).

I get to participate in the lives of three children. I’m glad there’s a legal framework, however flawed and limited, to try to protect them from sexual coercion. If my 13-year-old fell under the spell of an older man who liked taking pictures of her, you can bet I would call the police—faster than you can say “idli-vada-sambar".

But when I look at them as individuals with thoughts and personalities, the legal age of consent doesn’t have much meaning. They are at such different stages of maturity. When they make choices, am I really going to be impartial? Do I want them to make their own choices, or the ones I would choose for them? As I said earlier, whose consent are we talking about? And let’s not forget that there are plenty of adults who consistently make self-destructive decisions about sexuality, decisions that don’t add any joy or satisfaction to their lives. But they are grown-ups, and grown-ups, unlike children or teenagers, have the right to ruin their own lives if they wish. Their frontal lobes are fully developed, so they get to make their own decisions.

The most sensible laws, like Canada’s, consider age differentials. Two 15-year-olds having sex, exploring together, is very different from one 15-year-old and one 30-year-old. Should we legislate teenagers sending sexy texts to each other, or 50-year-olds sending pictures of their penises to young children?

While I see the necessity of a legal age of consent—say, 16—I propose we use that as a framework, not a straitjacket, and talk with our children about real consent. Let’s talk with them about freedom, about information, about safety, about making choices when they are neither drunk nor drugged, and not under any constraints because of an unequal power relationship.

I hope the children in my life feel free to explore and enjoy. They might go down sexual paths that we staid oldies never dreamt of. But I want them protected from predators. That’s what age of consent laws should do—protect their rights to determine their own sexual journeys, not our fears and neuroses.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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