Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth: age of consent laws are flawed. Their intention of protecting young people from exploitation and abuse is great, but so often this intention is lost amongst negative side-effects of setting an age where sex between a teenager and someone much older is considered “consensual” in the eyes of the law.
Often the “age of consent” is seen as the milestone at which a person hits emotional, physical, and sexual maturity. Considering this age can range from 16 to 18 depending on the state, and how science shows we don’t really stop developing until around our mid to late twenties, this belief is deeply problematic. Age of consent laws also have a disturbing history of valuing virginity over sexual agency. This dates back to the 13th century, when it was only punishable to “ravish” a girl as young as 12 if she was still a virgin. Echoes of this still show up in our culture with the policing of young girls’ sexuality. Namely, this belief that young women should be “sexy” or desirable, but stay a virgin at least until they’re considered “legal”. After that, it can often become a competition of who can “claim” their virginity. Yikes.
So, how can adults have meaningful conversations about age of consent laws that avoid stigma and keep the safety of youth and healthy sexual development at the forefront?
Age of consent laws really boil down to two major issues within our culture: 1) the hypersexualization of and obsession with youth; and 2) a lack of understanding of what sexual consent entails.
Hypersexualization of and Obsession with Youth
There are a few different discussions adults can have with youth about our culture’s views on teenagers. These discussions and examples of what this looks like in our culture can be adapted to fit your audience. If you want more support around this, you can always email us at Professional.Development@pprm.org.
One talking point is about how our culture is flooded with messages that tell youth that they’re most desirable as teenagers and how they need to gain sexual experience while in their teens. Years ago, Girls Inc. started a hashtag on Twitter called #FirstTimeIWasCatcalled, encouraging users to post the age of the first time they were catcalled as well as how it happened. This put a spotlight on how young sexual advances and harassment start, the most common age being 13 to 14 years old.
It’s important to note that many states have “Romeo and Juliet” laws, which allow young people to have sex with other young people as long as they are within a certain age range (and, of course, give consent!). The age gaps vary greatly between states, and may even vary within one state based on how old folks are. For example, Colorado has one set of laws for folks who are 14 or younger, and another set of laws for 15 and 16 year-olds.
Another important talking point is how our culture views a teenager that is of “legal” age as automatically being sexually available and even desirable for adults. In many ways, this reinforces the dominant narrative in our culture that someone should primarily consider whether or not they will “catch a case” (go to court) if they have sex with a teenager instead of how and why adults lusting after teenagers is wrong.
Recent examples of this include 27 year old model Ali Michael asking 14 year old actor Finn Wolfhard to call her when he turns 18 and the countdown to when 17 year old singer Billie Eilish turns 18 so she can be sexually available. Another big example that has received a lot of media attention after decades of alleged sexual misconduct is R. Kelly’s obsession with young girls and the recent documentary Surviving R. Kelly.
Some questions to get these discussions started could include:
- At what age do you think young people start being seen in a sexual way by adults?
- *Note: to be trauma-informed, it’s important not to ask students about their own experiences being seen sexually or experiencing street harassment. Instead, make the conversation more about our society in general.
- How do movies/TV/music/media view teenage sexuality? How is this reflected in real life?
- Do you think that our culture values youth when it comes to being sexually wanted? Why/how?
- Age of consent laws can say that the legal age to have sex with someone is when they are 14 – 18 years old, depending on the state. What do you think of these ages?
- Why should people care about an adult wanting to have sex with a teenager if the teenager is of “legal” age? What are the problems with this?
If you’re able to discuss porn, it may also be worthwhile to ask youth why they think “barely legal” is such a popular category of porn.
The above discussion questions also transition nicely into talking about how age can affect someone’s ability to consent. You don’t have to discuss how youth are sexualized in our culture to talk about consent, but the two topics do work well together, especially when you’re highlighting age of consent laws. Questions to begin the discussion on consent and age of consent laws could include:
- Can someone consent to have sex with a person that is much older than them? Why or why not?
- What things should someone think about other than whether they could be sent to jail when they’re asking for consent?
It’s important to remind people of their consent FRIES when starting discussions. Consent is…
- Freely given
For consent to be freely given, that means that there is no pressure or manipulation that is making it so that person feels like they have to consent; rather they have to want to consent, and do so enthusiastically. Remind youth that the reason why states have age of consent laws is to protect someone from being pressured or manipulated into having sex with someone who is older. Someone older usually has more experience and can have more power than someone younger. If a “yes” is not free from pressure, manipulation, or a power imbalance, then it is not consent.
Facilitators can also talk more about how consent must be informed, meaning they know exactly what they’re saying “yes” to, and how consent must be specific, which means they are only saying “yes” to certain sexual activities but not all sexual activities. Sometimes these two parts of consent can be murky when an adult has sex with an older teenager that is consider legally “of age,” especially if there is pressure to do something else during sex.
Age of consent laws can be difficult to navigate because of how focused it can make young people on what is legal versus illegal when it comes to sex, instead of what is healthy and safe. With these two topics in mind, adults can start deeper discussions with youth that encourage them to think more about cultural pressure, consent, and what lessons really lie behind age of consent laws.
“4 Ways Parents Can Battle How Society Hypersexualizes Their Children” in Everyday Feminism, 2016
“All About Consent” on Planned Parenthood, 2019
“The Disturbing Sexualization of Really Young Girls” on HuffPost, 2012
“Op-ed: Michael Jackson And R. Kelly Prove We Need Talk To Boys About Sexual Abuse” in BET, 2019 https://www.bet.com/news/national/2019/03/22/processing-michael-jackson–r–kelly–and-how-we-talk-to-boys-ab.html
“R. Kelly and Other Powerful Men Have Always Manipulated Their Teen Fans” in Teen Vogue, 2019
“We Need to Talk About Age-of-Consent Law” on Spiked, 2019
“Why 16?” in The Cut, 2019
“Why ‘Barely Legal’ Porn is So Dangerous” in The Daily Beast, 2017