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Robin J. Wilson
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Summer 2005 Issue deadline for article submission is June 15, 2005.

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Vol. XVII, No. 2
Spring 2005
Age of Consent: The Sexualization of Children

Robin Wilson, Ph.D., C.Psych.Those who know me or have heard me speak will know that I am not one to shy away from controversy. And I have no intention of changing, mostly because raising difficult issues and concepts is, perhaps, one of the ways that we, as specialists working with the most difficult of clientele, learn how better to serve these folks. At last fall’s conference, I gave a presentation in which I highlighted a number of seeming contradictions in how society views children, particularly in regard to sexuality. Over the past couple of months, there have been at least three long list-serve threads also questioning issues surrounding the sexualization of children, particularly in regard to child pornography.

 

In the 1980s and into the early 90s, child pornography was relatively scarce. In searching for materials to use as phallometric stimuli, Kurt Freund, Ray Blanchard and I had the occasion to visit the Ontario Provincial Police’s Joint Forces Pornography Unit (colloquially known as Project “P”) and the Ontario Censor Board. For the most part, the materials we saw tended to be of rather poor quality (e.g., super 8 film, grainy photographs, etc.). However, with the advent of the videocam, the digital camera and, particularly, the internet the playing field has radically changed. The proliferation of and easy access to images of children in all manner of sexual poses has caused most of us to be very concerned. While politicians continue to play catch-up in regard to legislative attempts to control internet child porn, researchers and clinicians are also grappling with complex issues around diagnostics, risk potential, and treatment options for those who frequent such sites.

 

While preparing my talk, one of the most glaring inconsistencies I encountered surrounded the definition of child pornography and the age of consent. In Canada, the age of full consent is currently 14, although there are renewed calls to raise it to 16. Theoretically, a 42-year-old Canadian man can have as much sex as he likes with a 14-year old girl, provided he has her consent, is not related to her, is not in an authority position (e.g., priest, teacher, probation officer, etc.), and did not “lure” her over the internet.

 

The Criminal Code of Canada (CCC 163.1[1]) defines child pornography as:

(a) a photographic, film, video or other visual representation, whether or not it was made by electronic or mechanical means,

(i) that shows a person who is or is depicted as being under the age of eighteen years and is engaged in or is depicted as engaged in explicit sexual activity, or

(ii) the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person under the age of eighteen years; or

(b) any written material or visual representation that advocates or counsels sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years that would be an offence under this Act.

The key point to note here is that the definition pertains to persons who are, or are depicted as being, under 18 years of age. So, the 42-year-old man above can have sex with as many 14, 15, 16, or 17-year-old girls as he likes (provided he meets the aforementioned caveats), but he cannot produce or possess any pictures of them in the nude. And, that same man can have as much sex as he likes with a 25-year-old woman, but cannot produce, possess, or distribute sexual pictures of her if she is depicted as being 17 or under. I trust you see the inconsistencies. Another thought: What about girls under 18 who are dressed up to look older than 18? Is that child pornography, and how would anyone reasonably know that they were looking at a “child”?

 

Is there something wrong with the age of consent, the definition of child pornography, or have we just mucked it all up? A central point here concerns the propriety of sexual expression for teenagers. I have children of both genders. As many other parents well know, girls start menstruating much earlier these days than they used to--some as early as 10-11 and, for the most part, a lot of teenaged girls are fully physically developed by 14. As part of the Britney Spears generation, they are also prone to wearing what I consider particularly sexually provocative clothing. Living in a house with teenaged girls has, at times, been a real eye-opener for me. To be honest, my experience has been that many girls in the 14-17 year old range are sexually attractive and are often unabashedly sexual in their mannerisms. However, as a professional and well-centered adult I am keenly aware of the impropriety of thinking of these girls as objects for my own sexuality. But, what about our offenders?

 

In my presentation last fall, I chose a few glaring examples from contemporary Western culture to highlight a variety of difficulties. First, Who guitarist Pete Townshend was arrested for surfing child porn sites, he says, as part of his research for a book about child molestation. Second, rapper R. Kelly was charged for videotaping himself having sex with one or more 14-year-old girls. Last, and certainly not least of late, Michael Jackson was charged for sexually molesting a young boy following admissions in a British documentary of sleeping in the same bed with children. This was the second time such allegations had been levelled at the King of Pop. Each of these individuals has his detractors and, surprisingly, supporters. I do not want to spend a lot of time expounding on the foolishness of Mr. Townshend, the brazenness of Mr. Kelly’s actions (he reportedly simulates similar actions during his stage show), or the media circus that is now Mr. Jackson’s trial. What I do want to highlight is how much the actions of some of our popular culture icons mimic the actions of some of our offenders.

 

Before going further, I want to be abundantly clear that there are many, many truly horrific sexual images of children on the internet. Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes Unit is a renowned expert in investigating child pornography and is central to a new partnership with Microsoft in which special detection protocols and programs will be instituted in the near future. I have had the pleasure of speaking on the same bill with Sgt. Gillespie and can tell you that some of the images he fleetingly shows during his presentations will haunt me forever. I do not believe that any of us would have a difficult time stating that those images are evil, or that those who view them for sexual purposes are offenders in need of treatment. But, what about the countless images available that flirt with the Canadian definition of child pornography? And, what about the surely thousands of men who view those images for a sexual purpose?

 

Without wanting to be too unkind to the aforementioned Ms. Spears, she provides an excellent case in point. Britney almost single-handedly revived the “schoolgirl” look in the video for her song “Oops, I Did It Again”. A cute young girl in a short skirt, with her blouse tied exposing her abdomen made for a very provocative look, never mind the gyrating dance moves. After spending a few hours on the net researching Ms. Spears, I was amazed at some of my findings. Focusing solely on the schoolgirl look, you can now purchase online both a Britney schoolgirl doll for your young daughter and a Britney schoolgirl dress-up costume for your wife. The latter can be purchased from a site that also offers links to a variety of “teen” pornography sites and, while each of these sites prominently claims that all models are over 18, many are clearly depicted as being younger. Is this a breach of Canadian law? Did I break the law by looking at any of these sites while researching my presentation?

 

Interestingly, Britney is quoted on the net as saying, “I've turned from a little nice school girl, into this sexy, slutty seductress. And, I like it…I like it a lot.” Many young girls idolize her…they idolize her a lot. There is a pop group from Eastern Europe named Tatu, which features two supposedly young schoolgirls who are reportedly lesbian lovers. Pictures on the net range from the two of them sitting at a library table doing homework and blowing bubbles to racy cover shots from the Russian version of Maxim. In the middle are a number of concert images in which the girls start off dressed like Britney and progressively take off clothing until the show climaxes in a virtual wet underwear contest. Given that these are supposed to be teenaged schoolgirls (they’re actually not), are those images child porn? Should our offenders be buying the Maxim issue with the Tatu girls laid out in all manner of sexually provocative poses? Should we? I have seen, first hand, the effect Britney’s ongoing transformations have had on the teenaged female population and, by extension, the teenaged male population. However, what effect has been felt in the offender population?

 

I am ever mindful of the need to be egalitarian in considering the sexual indiscretions perpetrated by persons of both genders. In this, I would like to take a moment to focus on the troubling developments of the Mary Kay Letourneau case in the United States. Mary Kay was a teacher who sexually molested one of her Grade 6 charges, eventually becoming pregnant with two of his children, once while she was already serving a sentence for abusing him. She was ultimately given a seven and a half year sentence for her offenses but, in a weird twist, a Judge recently lifted the “no contact” order effectively allowing her to marry the young man formerly her student and “victim”. Someone on the internet asked, “Is she a rapist or is it a love story?” Would anyone ask that question if the genders were switched? Somewhere in this is a really troublesome double standard, and we can only imagine what kind of message it sends to our offender population.

 

So, what does all this mean? Canadian men can have sex with teenaged girls and they can cajole their wives into dressing up like Britney Spears in a schoolgirl outfit, but they are not allowed to make, possess, or distribute pictures of either those teenaged girls or their wives dressed up like Britney. And, female schoolteachers who abuse their male students are now apparently allowed to marry their victims. Pretty confusing. I seriously wonder how well our offender population is able to understand the admittedly subtle cues for proper behaviour embedded somewhere in this mess. On the list-serve, many have questioned whether there is a link between liking child porn and hands-on offending. It makes great sense to speculate that those inclined to view porn, generally, are most likely to view the sort of people they would most like to have sex with. As noted above, there are clear difficulties in regard to the “evil” images Sgt. Gillespie investigates; however, there are still questions to be answered regarding those who view pictures of fully developed (according to Tanner development scales), fully sexually functional females (or males, for that matter) who are legally available for sexual activity, although maybe not for viewing in magazines, film, or on the net.

 

As a parent, I am well aware of the difficulties associated with sexual activity and teens. I am a firm believer that children should wait to have sex until they are fully knowledgeable and comfortable with their decision to engage in such activities. Although it may be surprising to some, I am also a supporter of the current age of consent in Canada. That age was set in acknowledgement of the fact that many 14 and 15 year olds are sexually active. Let’s face it, their bodies are functional and they have the biological urges. It makes sense to conclude that a good percentage of those kids will engage in sexual activities. To criminalize those actions under 16 appears somewhat arbitrary to me and, perhaps, does not take into consideration physical development or drift in contemporary mores or practices. For instance, smart high schools put condom dispensers in their washrooms—a clear demonstration of an increasing consideration of harm reduction in the face of pitifully poor statistics on promoting abstinence.

 

In this article, I have waded into what I consider to be a real quagmire. It was my intention to be provocative and to raise questions that some of us might really rather ignore. However, as I stated up front, I truly believe that we must consider these difficult issues in order to better understand what it is we are actually trying to accomplish. I believe that 42-year-old adults should stay away from teenagers, but I don’t believe that teenagers between 14 and 16 (or 18, for that matter) should be criminalized for following natural urges. I believe that people who habitually view physically immature persons for a sexual purpose are likely pedophilic, but I question whether there is anything wrong with being aroused by a naked, fully physically developed person who just happens to be under 18. What you or I do with that arousal is maybe the better question. Lastly, I believe that we need to become a lot more consistent in how we (society) view children and, especially, how we portray their “sexuality”. Whether it be child beauty pageants, teenaged “waif” models, or the countless number of amazingly popular “teen” websites featuring young, fresh adults made up to look like schoolgirls and boys, it is abundantly clear to me that if we can’t get our story straight, how can we ever expect our offenders to model our supposedly appropriate behaviour?

 

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