Mon | Dec 18, 2017

Orville Taylor | Age of consent - We need expertise from the experts

Published:Sunday | May 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Today is Mother's Day, and maybe because I am not saying it in French, "Sauce bonne pour l'oie, est bonne pour le jars," we overlook the very common maxim, "Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

In essence, this means that everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, and this has to do with everything, including sexual consent. But did anyone notice that le president de la France, Monsieur Emmanuel Macron, is married to a woman who not only literally could have been his mother but, more important, functioned as his surrogate parent in high school when she was his drama teacher.

Whatever might have been the acting skills that a 40-year-old Brigitte Trogneux engendered or brought out of the 15-year-old Macron, it is clear that she made him understand where the climax in the play is to be placed in the end as how to provoke a standing ovation before and after his election. True, they are now happily married and have a family, including stepchildren, but I am as uncomfortable as a politician who realises that the greener grass is actually in his own yard.

Indeed, there is something clearly more mathematically sound about 40 being divisible by 15, while as we say in Jamaican maths class, '40 cannot go into 15.' Therefore, the idea of a pre-geriatric male teacher grooming a 15-year-old fifth-former seems to run afoul of every norm I can imagine, and the sex of the teacher or child makes no difference.

It is tempting to make light of the fact that Trogneux comes from a long line of chocolatiers and perhaps enticed the youngster by teaching him about the joy of a mouthful of 'chawklit'; but something is not equally right about the story. My issue is not the age difference. An older woman who is a pensioner must still seek to maintain her livelihood. However, children in high school are not fair game.

 

Raising the age consent

 

Our own children's advocate has been in the news discussing proposals regarding raising of the age of consent from 16 to 18. In fact, 30 years ago, it was 14, and was not increased until 1988. It is a vexed issue and the International Labour Organization (ILO) has had kittens over the years grappling with the myriad definitions of child across different statutes.

After all, in this country, we have decided that one cannot legally drink or smoke and, doubtless, should have no role in the selection of a government unless he is 18. And that makes a lot of sense. Therefore, if a child cannot decide what to do with the toxins that go into her body, why should she be able to determine that microorganisms be placed into her body and grow. More strange is that she does not have complete independence in making certain decisions regarding the kind of medical attention she can get if she becomes pregnant.

Quite intriguing it is also that a youth of 17 can have sex with another youth of the same age, assuming that they are not two boys. Yet, if any of them decides to take a picture of the other, it is a case of child pornography. Yep! How dumb is this? You can sleep with her and put her very future at risk, however, you cannot take a picture of her in a sexually suggestive position or any intimate part of her anatomy.

In my view, a child's body is far more important to her/him than a house of Parliament where only a few, if any, behavioural scientists operate. And if one thinks that Jamaica's age of consent is ludicrous, don't speak. There is a French connection in the UK, where it is 16. Yet across the various members of the Brexited European Union, it ranges from 14 to 18. Germany, Italy, and Austria are at the lower end of the continuum, with the Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Sweden at 15. Malta and Turkey, an interesting gastronomic combination, are at the upper limit of 18. For the record, the States are not united on this one eitheras the age ranges between 16 and 18 from state to state. Therefore, our ambivalence and ambiguities are not Third-World realities. It is a global phenomenon.

 

More inconsistency

 

Still, there is even more inconsistency. A child can be held criminally responsible at the age of 12 in Jamaica. This is a gap of four years. A country like Finland, with one of the best human development indices globally, has an age of consent of 16 and age of criminal responsibility of 15.

Nonetheless, the real problem with the status of children is that their affairs are determined by well-meaning but unqualified people who believe that interest and care alone and certification in non-behavioural disciplines makes them suited to make decisions regarding their welfare. The problem is systemic. it ranges from the justice to the educational institutions. For me, a government that places its least-qualified teachers and rewards them lowest in the early childhood institutions is one that is looking up the wrong end of the horse.

Similarly, juridical and judicial decisions regarding children are too complex to be left to a magistrate who has only layman's training, if any, in child psychology, social work, or sociology. In the Family Court, for example, the opinion of behavioural scientists should not be persuasive where the judge can discard it.

Legislation should make the experts' guidelines instructive and binding. In fact, my view is that one needs a panel of arbiters - one of whom is a judge - that operates like the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT). The IDT is a quasi-court. Yet it has powers that ordinary courts do not, and rightfully so. It is the recognition that labour matters, though guided by statute, are too multifaceted to be subject to narrow legalistic thinking.

Hopefully, the paradigm shift begins here.

- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to

columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com