Lowering the Age of Consent is a Children's Rights Issue
The Age of Majority, also known as the Age of Consent, is the age where lawmakers have decided that “children” can consent to certain things including having sex, getting married, and forming contracts for goods, services, real estate, and so on. Historically, the age of consent was around 10 or 12 years old in many states in the USA as well as various European nations and other countries around the world up until about 100 years ago. Since then, it has increased to about 14 to 18 years of age in Western nations, with various exceptions upwards or downwards in various non-Western nations. Today, the average Age of Consent among the states of the USA is 17.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) focuses on giving children many rights based on what the UN member States considers the “best interests” standard. The USA has signed but has not ratified the UNCRC due to concerns it has about some of its language pertaining to the death penalty, military service, imprisonment, and parental rights. For example, the USA wants to continue its practice of treating minors like adults when they are alleged to have committed certain crimes, potentially subjecting them to the death penalty or otherwise imprisoning them with adult populations. Also the USA wants to continue its practice of letting children under the age of 18 serve in the US military. And the USA wants to continue to be able to minimize children’s rights in child custody disputes, in schools, and in religious contexts. Clearly nations that have ratified the UNCRC, which includes virtually every single nation in the world apart from the USA, believe the USA is mistaken in not ratifying this Convention. I agree.
It is this sense of control over children that pervades the US legal system’s treatment of minors in every part of their lives, including their ability to unilaterally and without parental supervision or approval partake in many activities until they reach the Age of Consent set by each state. In so many other nations and throughout time including the present, children under the age of 18 have been working professionally in various types of jobs, getting married, having sex, raising their own children, running companies, and even ruling nations. We know that children are better educated now than at any other time in history. Arguably with the kinds of experiences and information that they can access in the world today and especially online, children are more in touch with who they are, their place in the world, what they believe, and what they want to accomplish: all the hallmarks of maturity.
So then why do we continue to deny that children under a certain age have the ability or the right to unilaterally partake in society’s activities in so many ways, to get a job, to decide when to legally engage in sexual activity, to decide to be married and have children of their own, to buy and sell property and contract for services, to decide how to spend time with their parents after a divorce, to decide where they want to go to school and if they want to continue attending school at all, to attend religious services or not, to acquire birth control or have an abortion, to live in a home other than their parents, and so many other choices?
For example, we know that the majority of teens are engaged in some level of sexual activity even below the age where it is legal for them to do so, yet we continue to make such activity a misdemeanor or a felony even where it occurs between two minors who both want that very much. We also make it illegal for them to access birth control or have an abortion without parental involvement. This is particularly problematic where they are living in an abusive or negligent home environment or where there are simply profound philosophical differences between the children and their parents. This kind of conflict can result in unwanted teenage pregnancies, teenage runaways, prostitution, drug crimes, and so many other societal ills.
Frankly even using the word “children” feels disingenuous in so many of these situations. We see preteens and teens from age 10 and up in our society with cell phones and tablets, at stores using credit cards or cash to buy all sorts of items, downloading apps for phones or software for computers, checking out books from the library, making food, doing chores, engaging in intelligent communications and thought-processes, making wonderful things, and doing so much that adults do.
Children under the Age of Consent have a strong level of maturity, intellect, emotional intelligence, and social capabilities. It’s time we stop limiting their potential, criminalizing certain of their perfectly healthy behaviors, and restricting their right to experience all the things that they would be able to experience if they lived 100 years ago or in other nations or US states where the Age of Consent is lower.
Our first instinct is to undermine states or nations where the Age of Consent is under 18 by viewing them as less progressive, less intelligent, less aware, and just “less”. Our instinct is to protect children even where they may resent it. But intelligence, not fear and prejudice, should guide our creation of laws. Such laws should be based on the fundamental principles of liberty, fairness, and current science. The current restriction on children’s rights fail in this regard.
Let’s look at some basic empirical facts in the USA alone:
Teens can be killed via the death penalty for committing capital crimes. Teens can serve in the US military and kill our so-called enemies. Children can wake up at 6 am and attend their school-jobs from 8 am to 3 pm and come home to do more work for another 2 to 4 hours. Children can acquire and hold difficult jobs when they’re 14 with a parent’s permission. Children can use technology for entertainment or work. Children can cook and clean for themselves and their families.
But if they’re under the age of 18, they can’t vote? If they’re under the Age of Consent, no matter the facts or how close to that age they may be, and regardless of their sexual maturity, they can’t decide to have a romantic or sexual interaction? They can’t buy things or have a job without a parent’s consent? They can’t legally decide which parent, if either, they want to spend time with after a divorce? They can’t choose their own religious activities? They can’t decide if they want to continue attending school or which school they want to attend? They can’t invest their money, own or operate a business, or run for political office?
Not only are such restrictive laws fundamentally violating the natural rights of children and teens. They are underestimating the intellectual, emotional, political, professional, economic, social, and sexual maturity of children under the Age of Consent, while simultaneously they are overestimating that of adults. This is particularly clear when we consider how children in other nations who are below the US average Age of Consent have been granted legal rights that are denied them in the USA and function perfectly adequately and maturely just like average adults.
It’s time to rethink our laws and the impact they have on our society, from the activities that we label as criminal to these laws’ limitations on human potential and experience. The effects are maddening, as children are certainly frustrated by such limits and rightfully so. Such frustration is seen each time an underage teenager acts out to establish his or her sense of agency and self-control. We see the impact when our children and teens act less mature than is age appropriate: we’re coddling them, and it shows! We see how our forced limitations on their experiences can cause young adults to make terrible mistakes. In the same way that Sex Education in middle school and high school better prepares young adults to deal with the sexual choices they later become legally permitted to make, and in the same way that education and experience in general does the same for so many other choices they’re making, the experiences that children can be having that we now legally prohibit them from experiencing could be nurturing more mature young adults in every way, thus ultimately benefiting society, young and old.
Thus in addition to upholding a wise philosophical perspective that promotes freedoms and rights for all members of society regardless of their age — an idea that underpins the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, lowering the Age of Consent in line with the realistic activities, needs, and abilities of our youth is a rational choice that gives these so-called “children” the rights they deserve and the responsibility that they’re prepared to shoulder.