The Age of Consent Protects Potential Abuse Victims, and That’s How it Should Stay

I read a really powerful piece this week written by a person who I’m not sure would like to be named, where she talked about how, at age 12 and 13, she was in a relationship with a ‘much older adult man.’ She detailed how she felt like an adult; grown up and capable of making adult decisions about herself.

Although harrowing, powerful and gut-wrenching, the hardest part about this woman’s story is that it is not a once-off occurrence. We have this perception that child grooming occurs when an older man or woman pretends to be a young person the same age as the person they’re grooming – this is usually not the case. In reality, groomers are most often people who are blatantly older, blatantly interested romantically (at first) in kids who are not old enough to know that there’s something wrong with the scenario, or that the older person is either a paedophile or hebephile.

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Ian Watkins, found guilty of grooming women in order to sexually assault their children, image source

I’m not calling it naivety, because that’s condescending. It is a word that has so many negative connotations that I refuse to assign it to a young person who is not even at a stage of life that they should understand the intentions of a groomer or paedophile. One cannot explain to a 12, 13, 14 or indeed 15 year old that a 22+ year old man or woman interested in them is not ‘love,’ no matter how much they feel for that older person themselves.

We have this perception that child grooming occurs when an older man or woman pretends to be a young person the same age as the person they’re grooming – this is usually not the case.

We see it all the time – young boys being groomed by teachers or neighbours. Young girls being groomed by teachersfootballers, and musicians. The most powerful tool these groomers have is the ability to make their target genuinely feel like they’re in love with them – and that is why I won’t call it naivety. There is nothing naive about being so young and innocent that you believe the things a stranger tells you. As Taylor Swift once sang, ‘when you’re fifteen and someone tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe it.’ Media, in the form of books, films and TV shows, constantly push the idea that you have to meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with at age 16 or that’s it – forever alone. Unfortunately, it’s a strong, clear message that a lot of young people take to heart.

Coupled with the fact that a groomer is going to be able to present themselves as this shining, wonderful embodiment of everything that young person desires, it’s easy to see why these things happen. It’s easy to see how young people are taken in. I recently spoke to a 15 year old family member who wanted to know ‘Why is it anyone’s business if a 14 year old dates a 22 year old? They might be in love, it doesn’t mean they’re having sex.’ That, ladies, gentlemen and non-binary folk, is exactly the sort of outlook a groomer seeks in a target. That is the message that needs to be challenged.

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Adam Johnson, convicted for grooming a 15 year old fan, image source

What does that have to do with the age of consent, you ask?

Absolutely everything.

The current age of consent in Ireland is 17. This covers all scenarios in which a person may be coerced or convinced into having sex with someone else while under the age of consent. It takes the choice out of the situation and prevents young, not-yet-fully-developed brains from being held accountable for abuse that might happen to them. Lowering the age of consent puts a young person into a situation where they may be pressured into doing something they don’t want to do simply because the law states that they can.

Media, in the form of books, films and TV shows, constantly push the idea that you have to meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with at age 16 or that’s it – forever alone.

Imagine a 14 year old child having to stand up in court and be ripped apart by the defence in a case of blatant rape or sexual assault. Imagine putting a child through all the literal trials and tribulations that an adult rape victim has to go through, without the protection the law offers to spare that child the danger of having to testify convincingly against an assaulter. It’s completely illegal to have sexual contact with anyone under the age of 17 for that exact reason.

The other reason that the age of consent here is 17 is the simple fact that adolescent brains are not fully developed. In the human brain, the prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for decision making and impulse control. Simply put, young adolescents do not have the ability to consistently make responsible adult decisions because their brains have not reached maturity levels required for them to be able to consider consequences. This is why you’ll hear stories of teenagers jumping off bridges into rivers for fun – it may be fun, but the dangers aren’t considered and are less of an issue than it would be to a young or older adult. While a 15 year old may feel fully ready to be in a relationship with an older adult, it is quite possible that the relationship will prove to be damaging. Although it is not thought that the human brain is fully matured until the age of 25, there is a massive, massive difference between ages 15 and 17, however minuscule it might look.

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I had a discussion with someone recently who said that they were wondering if age-relative consent ages would be useful – such as someone aged 15 could have sexual contact with a person aged between 15-17. Again, I don’t think so. Imagine a 15 year old in a relationship with a 16 year old. Age-relative consent might suggest that that person can have sex legally, but they may by no means be ready for it. It puts pressure on the young person to decide something that the law currently protects. Sexual maturity is different for everyone, but I can guarantee that for every 15 year old ready to have sex there is another 15 year old that isn’t.

The age of consent takes the choice out of the situation and prevents young, not-yet-fully-developed brains from being held accountable for abuse that might happen to them.

Then there’s the issue of raising the age of consent. I’ve seen it suggested around the internet a few times, kind of as a throw-in to the general age of consent debate, but in reality, it’s another danger. At 17, nobody really celebrates it. It’s something that passes by in between sweet sixteen and the age that one can legally drink, buy smokes and do the lotto. If the age of consent was raised to 18 or older, it becomes a legal acquisition. A right.

I’m sure we’ve all heard more than enough about recently convicted rapist Brock Turner, but can you imagine how many more Brock Turners we’d have in the world if sex was considered to be as legal a right of passage as buying a pint? It’s bad enough that attitudes to sex and sexual consent are questionable at best. It’s bad enough that every day we hear somewhere that someone was raped or assaulted or that someone woke up in someone else’s bed and doesn’t remember how they got there, and they laugh it off because what else are you going to do when pursuing it legally will get you nowhere? It’s bad enough that there are people in the world who think that they are entitled to sex without the law basically suggesting it too by lumping it in with other, so-called adult ‘activities’ like drinking.

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Brock Turner, found guilty of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, image source

Until there is global education on what consent really means, and until we can ensure the safety of a person under the age of 17 in terms of paedophilia, the age of consent can’t change. Things are bad enough without forcing young people into feeling like they are ready to make decisions on things that our predominantly Catholic-run education system gives a lacklustre amount of information on. Some schools – probably mixed schools, I’d imagine – teach their students how to put condoms on correctly. My school taught us how to not get raped by showing us how to put keys between our fingers when out walking alone at night.

It’s bad enough that there are people in the world who think that they are entitled to sex without the law basically suggesting it too by lumping it in with other, so-called adult ‘activities’ like drinking, etc.

For such a grey area, the added danger of changing the age at which a person should or could be ready to have sex is wrong, and even potentially harmful. In reality, we need a complete overhaul on the way we teach young people about healthy sexual behaviour. We need to teach them that older people interested in teenagers are predators abusing a position of power. We need to change the way our conversations are happening around predatory behaviour and know that it is not usually a man in a van or a woman pretending to be 13 online. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, but they are also vulnerable. They too want to believe that they are romantically loved – just like everyone else does.

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