The Limits of Age Limits

McGill Tribune

Eleven months ago, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped for two and a half hours outside her high school dance in California. More than 20 people were involved in the incident. At least four of these men ravaged the girl, while several others took out their phones not to call the cops, but to snap some photos.  The rest stood back and cheered them on.

On September 10, a freakishly similar incident took place east of Vancouver. A 16-year-old girl was drugged and gang-raped by partygoers during a weekend rave. This time, one of the cowardly onlookers decided to take his paparazzi instinct a step further and posted the pictures on his Facebook page. By the time his Facebook account was deleted by authorities, the pictures had already reappeared in a dozen other black holes throughout the Internet, and they are still multiplying.  

Even the RCMP admitted defeat. As such, they have now resorted to highly ambitious pleas, urging the online community to stop reposting the pictures and for witnesses to step forward and speak up.

In California and in British Columbia, the ages of majority are 18 and 19, respectively. In the California incident, four arrests were made, and in Vancouver, two. In California, all of the boys—three of them were under 18 years of age, one a 15-year old—were charged with at least one count of sexual assault, and all of them were charged as adults. In Vancouver, one 16-year old may face child pornography charges, while police are “recommending” charges of sexual assault for the other 18-year-old. Both of them have been released until prosecutors “consider” charges.

I am sure — or at least I sincerely hope — that all of the young men deeply regret their heinous crimes. The difference, however, is that the Americans are doing their contemplation behind steel bars and not on plush sofas. The young Canadians deserve jail time, too.

However, to remain faithful to the integrity of this column, I will give the benefit of doubt to the perpetrators and try to understand them as they would hope to be understood. As unpleasant as this will be, let me exchange minds with an adolescent rapist and a voyeur.  

One possibility, as suggested by Louisa Russell of the Canadian Association for Sexual Assault Centres, is that there is “a lot of misunderstanding among young boys on consent.” True, but an 18-year-old male is not a young boy. The actions of these men are certainly not those of young boys either.

Raping someone is a deliberate choice. So is getting drunk at a party, and so is circulating the graphic evidence so that the girl and her family are forced to relive the traumatic nightmare.

Despite lacking scientific evidence, we continue to blindly accept age limits not as useful yardsticks but as legal absolutes. We continue to ignore the painfully obvious fact that people of the same age can behave in very different ways.

There is no evidence or study to show that young people undergo a programmed metamorphosis at precisely midnight on their 18th or 19th or 21st birthdays. And yet, if the federal elections were next week, a young girl who is 17 years and 350 days old will not be allowed to vote even if she was the campaign manager for a Liberal candidate, because she’s not yet 18.

Every recent post-election analysis in Canada has depicted puzzled political scientists trying to understand why voter turnout continues to plummet in general and amongst 18 to 24-year-olds in particular. Here’s an idea: maybe the apathy we observe in young voters is the result of a long and systematic rejection of their voices. Maybe we screwed up the most critical habit-forming years of their lives by neglecting to engage them when it mattered. Now, these 18-year-olds have aged into perfectly conditioned 35-year-olds who seem to robotically not care.

It is time to end our black-and-white attitudes about age and start judging individuals on a case-by-case basis. More importantly, it is time to educate young people better, not only about safe sex and the meaning of “no,” but also on the ethics of dealing with each other with dignity and respect.

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