Sex and the age of consent: The ethical issues

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The following discussion is based on a study of voluntary and positively experienced child/adult relationships. A sample of nineteen interviewees who had been younger parties in such relationships was obtained and all were interviewed at length. The term 'child/adult sex' is used here to refer to relationships where the younger parties were less than 16 years old and the older parties were more than 16 years old. All interviewees had been involved in relationships in which the age gap was more than five years, usually in reference to age of consent legislation is Australia. As Baker (1983) argues, debates surrounding the age of consent exemplify and continuously construct age categories. In arguing for a particular chronological age to be legalized as the age of consent, those self-defined as adults categorize people below the age of consent as 'children' specifying the nature of that category to demonstrate the inappropriateness of sexual relationships in 'childhood'. As she suggests, in other contexts, people between the ages of twelve and sixteen may be categorized as 'adolescents', and as having partial membership in the category 'adult'.

To obtain the sample I and the other interviewer made use of our social network, making it known that we were interested in hearing about positive experiences of child/adult sex. The interviewees ranged in age from ten years to fifty years at the time of interview and were from a variety of class backgrounds. The sample cannot claim to be representative and the study must be considered to be a pilot study in view of the paucity of interview studies that deal with positively experienced child/adult sex (Wilson 1981; Sandfort 1982; Rossman 1985).

Although all the interviewees characterized their experiences as 'positive' this does not mwan that they did not identify both positive and negative aspects of their experience. Ultimately, interviewees summarized their experiences positively in reference to an influential discourse that views child/adult sex as necessarily an abusive exploitation of the younger party. They were keen to distance their own experiences from this characterization.

This paper will consider these interview texts in terms of the ethical objections to child/adult sex that make up the most common view of such relationships; that children are necessarily exploited and abused in such relationships.

source: Paper 'Sex and the age of consent: The ethical issues' by Terry Leahy;; Social Analysis; No. 39; April 1996