Does Age Make a Difference?

Understanding or identifying sexual abuse can be both frightening and confusing for individuals at any age. “Sexual abuse” is often used to describe abuse that is or has been going on for a period of time; whereas “sexual assault” is often used to describe a single incident. Sexual abuse and exploitation is perpetrated on people of all ages and includes undesirable physical contact (e.g., fondling, penetration, coercion to perform acts on someone else, prostitution), as well as undesirable non-physical contact (e.g., sexual comments, exposure of quotes11intimate body parts, voyeurism, showing pornography, engaging in sexually obscene correspondence through the Internet, luring, verbal or emotional abuse that is sexual in nature, and making sexually obscene phone calls). All of these acts are crimes and any sexual activity without consent, regardless of age, is a criminal offence.

Age of Consent. In Canada, governmental policies around sexual abuse have been incorporated to assist with the protection of our children and youth; for example, the age of consent. As stated by the Department Justice of Canada, “the age of consent… refers to the age at which a young person can legally consent to sexual activity… The age of consent laws apply to all forms of sexual activity, ranging from sexual touching (e.g., kissing) to sexual intercourse. The age of consent for sexual activity is 16 years… However, the age of consent is 18 years where the sexual activity ‘exploits’ the young person — when it involves prostitution, pornography, or occurs in a relationship of authority, trust, or dependency” such as with a teacher, religious leader, coach, babysitter, and so forth. Sexual activity can also be considered exploitative of children/youth based on the nature and circumstances of the relationship. For example, if the relationship developed quickly, secretly, or over the Internet; if the partner may have controlled or influenced the young person through coercion or manipulation; and if the age difference between the young person and their partner exceeds a certain number of years (i.e., there must be less than 2 years difference if the young person is under the age of 14 years; and less than 5 years difference if the young person is between the age of 14-15 years).

Is it Normal or is it Abuse? While sexuality is a normal part of human development and expression, it is important to understand which behaviours are considered to be healthy and age-appropriate during early developmental stages. Sexual experimentation is common during childhood and curious questioning is expected in accordance with a child or youth’s developmental age. However, a child’s interest and involvement with sexuality is balanced with healthy interests in other aspects of his or her life as well. Sexual curiosity involving others is considered “normal” when the acts are voluntarily engaged in between individuals of similar age, size, strength, and power. If sexual activity occurs under circumstances of coercion, manipulation, authority, or family involvement of any sort, it is considered to be abusive.

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