A Generation Silenced: The Role of Children as Seen Through the Discourse on Age ofConsent Legislation

Psychology Department

Mosbacher, Rachel; Dec 03 2007
AdvisorHekma, Prof. Gert
UniversityWheaton College, School for International Training
Place PublishedAmsterdam

Introduction: personal Interest

I have been interested in the concept of an “age of sexual consent” since I was
about thirteen. To the best of my knowledge, this is much earlier than most children
even know what the term “age of consent” means, let alone how it affects them (see
Relevant Terminology section). What interested me about it initially, was that the ages of consent are different not only in every country, but in every US state. I also found it
interesting that any sort of consensual sex could be criminalized. As far as I knew, the
only kind of sex that was a crime was coercive or manipulative sex, or rape. It led me to question – who decides which type of sex is bad sex? [...]

The most significant aspect of this study is that I could not, in fact, speak to
those which the laws affect. Though it was not impossible, it was made exceptionally
difficult for me to get permission to use minors as participants for the purposes of my
research. This shows the extent to which children are protected, and consequently
denied the right to express their opinions in a public forum.  [...]

Research Question

This study explores how it is that children are kept out of the debate on age of
sexual consent laws, whether or not there is a prevalent feeling that they should be
included, and under what conditions and in what ways they could be.

Literature Review

... Among the Relevant Studies is mentioned: Rind & Tromovich 1979
[See < https://www.ipce.info/library_3/files/marev.htm  >] ...
Also is mentioned a less known publication:

Verwey-Jonker Institute (1998)
In 1998, a study was published by the Verwey-Jonker Institute, a private research foundation in the Netherlands. Researchers went to schools and asked children between the ages of 12 and 16 how they felt about the current age of consent,
specifically relating to the ‘klachtvereiste,’ or complaint exception, written into law in
the Netherlands. This exception meant that unless a child or the guardian of that child
complained about a sexual encounter with an adult, there were no grounds on which to arrest that adult or discontinue the relationship by law.
This study also investigated how adults felt about the exception in the law. The results revealed that children considered this exception to be very important for their autonomy and self-determination. Though the study showed that many of these children believed that 12 to 16 year olds are not ready for sexual intercourse, there was still an overwhelming belief that the decision should be their own, not their parents’ or the law’s. [...]
[In] 2002 [the] decision [of the Dutch governmant was] to remove the exception from Dutch law and criminalize all sexual relations between adults and those under the age of 16.

Another less known publication is mentioned:

Rachel Thomson (2004)
Six years after the Verwey-Jonker Institute’s research was published, a similar study was conducted in Britain by Rachel Thomson. In this study, Thomson gathered data from a focus group of 11-16 year olds about their opinions on lowering the heterosexual age of consent in Britain from 16 to 14 years old.
The results exposed that while all participants expressed a desire for sexual freedom and agency, there was still a fear, expressed by “girls in particular (who) were not confident that their interest would be served if sexual negotiations were completely private” and many saw this law as a “safety net which could be invoked if they were ‘cornered’”. In contrast, “young men (were) most dismissive of the attempts to control  or define their behavior”.
The uniting theme among the two genders was that neither believed much attention was paid to the law unless it was necessary to rely on it in a situation where a child felt that it was needed. In this sense, participants expressed a desire for the existence of a law much like the exception discussed in the Verwey-Jonker study, whereby the law could exist to protect children, but not to dictate their sexual freedoms. [...]

Theoretical Framework

Social Constructionism

[...] I have found Social Constructionism and Michael Foucault’s
theory of Power and Knowledge to be most useful. [...]
The concept that children are a group that must be protected from the ills of society, and as a result must also be prevented from acting as full fledged citizens of that society is a social phenomena that is explained by this theory. Social Constructionist theory states that the thoughts, events, policies and so on that occur in a certain era must be acknowledged in the context of that era. [...]
Laws and policies were developed to protect the “best
interests of the child,” however none were created to promote or protect their rights as
citizens. [...]


In addition to the theory of Social Constructionism, I have found the work of Michael Foucault to be pertinent to my study of the rights (or lack of rights) of children in society.
Foucault’s theory of power-knowledge, otherwise known as governmentality, is highly applicable to the issue. According to this theory, it could be claimed that the
condition of youth rights has deteriorated to its current state as a result of the power that adults gain by the wielding of knowledge over children (or at least the illusion of the importance of that knowledge). This knowledge is used by claiming that young people are different from adults in multiple ways, thereby categorizing them as something different, and less deserving of power. [...]
Foucault shows that in a sense, the designation of young people as powerless in society is merely an illusion created to hold them down, thereby promoting the success of the group using that knowledge to empower themselves, which is in this case, adults.

In addition to the relevancy of Foucault’s theory of power-knowledge, Foucault
spoke directly on the issue of age of consent laws in his April 4, 1978 appearance on the French radio show “French Culture” to discuss the abolition of these laws in France. In this conversation, entitled “The Danger of Child Sexuality” with Jean Danet and Guy Hocquenghem, Foucault refers to the “new medical power,” working hand in hand with the new penal and legislative systems (Foucault, 1990).

These systems work together to label certain populations as those who are in danger, and those who are dangerous, therefore automatically designating every child as a potentially powerless victim and every adult interested in children as a dangerous predator. This approach replaces the punishment of a crime with the criminalization of an entire population. It bolsters the new medical power by making the desires and practices of all pedophiles a medical condition for which they must be rehabilitated, whether or not they harm others.
In a similar way, the new medical power has also been strengthened by designating every child involved in a sexual relationship with an adult as having long-term psychological damage and in need of counseling for this problem. Whether or not the child feels this way, they have been told by society that they should feel powerless and victimized by the more dominant adult predator.


[...] My only assumption was that young adults would have strong opinions about the state of their freedoms, not what kind of opinions they would have. [...]


[Here summarized as:]

  • Surveys by e-mail with 20 students Sociology in Amsterdam.
  • Surveys by e-mail with some professionals.
  • Interviews with some of the students and the professionals.

The author remarks that Amsterdam is "a highly unique place"... because "there tends to be a more liberal population than in suburban and rural areas." Thus, the study is not representative but even more ineteresting.

Student surveys

Data Summary & Analysis: General Trends

In response to the question “at what age did you first have sexual urges or feelings?,” 80% of participants answered between 10 and 13 years old. The youngest response was 4-5 years old and the oldest was 16-17 years old.

Similarly, in response to the question “at what age did you have your first sexual experience with another person?,” 80% of participants answered between 10 and 15 years old, with the majority of those responses falling into the 12-13 bracket. The youngest response was 10 years old, while the oldest was 21 years old.

95% of responders believed that the age at which they had their first experience was a typical age, including those at the low and high end of the outliers. This could be due to the wording of the question, which asked whether they believed the age was typical as opposed to what society might view as typical.

When asked if they had ever been in a relationship with someone at least five years older when they were under the age of 16, 90% of participants responded “no.” Of
the 10% that responded “yes” and “a few (2-4),” these experiences were reported to
have been positive.

When asked if they had ever been in a relationship with someone at least five years younger when they were over the age of 16, 85% responded “no.” Of the 15% that responded “yes” and “a few (2-4),” the responds were described as either positive or neutral.

The questions “what messages did you receive about sexual relationships with those much older or younger than yourself?” and “how do you feel about these types of
relationships?” revealed a major themes in responses. The concept of “wave length,”
which is colloquialism translated from Dutch in various literal ways, but all meaning
something similar to this American colloquial statement, was consistently used as a
qualifier for relationships with those much older or younger. Being on the same wave
length refers to thinking similarly, understanding emotions similarly, and perhaps living the same type of life (for instance, the life of a student, or a working person, or an athlete).

Additionally, the concepts of “equal respect” and “complete consent” were used
repeatedly. The theme of equality of needs and desires appears to be an important
stipulation for many of the students to feel that relationships between children and
adults are feasible. “Equal power” was also topic that arose often in responses. There
was a general sentiment that one partner should not overpower the other, much like
being on the same “wavelength.”

Finally, some students expressed that cross-generational relationships were acceptable if both parties were over 18, but if one was under 18, there was no way that there could be equality and consent.

The information that participants received about this was primarily from parents,
friends and the media. Very few participants reported receiving information from
teachers. In terms of voicing their own opinions to figures of authority, there were no
reports of participants never being listened to.

  • 30% reported that they were “sometimes listened to” and
  • 30% reported that they were “rarely listened to.”
  • 25% reported that they were “always listened to,” and finally,
  • 15% reported that they were “listened to most of the time.”

When asked how they felt about the current age of consent in the Netherlands,

  • 65% reported that it was appropriate,
  • 20% reported that it was too young,
  • 5% reportedthat it was too old, and
  • 5% reported that they had no opinion about it.

When asked if they believe that children below the age of 16 should have a say in age of consent laws,

  • 30% said “yes,”
  • 50% said “no,” and
  • 20% said that they were “unsure” about it.

Explanations for these responses are further explained in the Gender Differentiation

Data Summary & Analysis: Gender Differentiation

Whereas all of the female responders were 18-22 years old, the majority of male
responders were 20-25 years old, embodying the views of a slightly older  demographic.
The trends of first sexual feeling versus first sexual contact for the two genders comparatively are not particularly striking as the participant pool was not large enough to reveal any recognizable pattern.

 A difference between the male and female responses that struck me was the information they received about relationships with those much younger or older than themselves.

  • The majority of females (75%) reported being told that these relationships were okay only under certain circumstances, whereas
  • almost half of the male respondents reported not receiving any information at all.

Despite the subject pool being relatively small, this could indicate that the issue is spoken about more commonly with females than with males, which would not be surprising, as there is a history among males of

  • “more accepting attitudes toward premarital sex and extramarital sex … and also less sex guilt and anxiety” (Bauserman & Rind, 1997).
  • None of the male participants said that the current age of consent in the Netherlands was too young, whereas
  • 25% of female participants expressed this thought.

When asked whether children below the age of 16 should have a say in age of consent

  • a third of the female respondents said that they were “not sure,” whereas
  • none of the males responded this way.

It is possible that the feelings expressed by female participants about the age of consent being too young and about being unsure of whether children should have a say in the issue are related to a series of findings in Robert Bauserman and Bruce Rind’s (1998) archival study on the differences between male and female reactions to sexual experiences with adults.

In studies that the authors referenced, by Finkelhor (1979) and Fritz et al. (1981), it was suggested that:

  • … boys’ reactions may be more positive than those of girls because boys are socialized to regard sex in a more positive fashion, whereas girls receive more negative messages. Fritz et al. (1981) stated that although girls typically regarded their experiences as sexual violation, boys often regarded their experiences as sexual initiation. (p. 127)

It is possible that the findings in this study explain at least part of the reason
why female participants responding to my survey expressed negative or apprehensive
feelings towards youth sexuality.

The females who expressed that they were unsure about whether or not children should have a voice in age of consent legislation seemed to be conflicted about to what degree a child’s opinion should be considered. There was a general theme that while the opinions of children should not necessarily affect the laws being made, “they can, however, be listened to, because it is naive to think that people younger than 16 years old know nothing about it”(Anonymous Survey Participant, 2007).

This point was also articulated more extensively in my interview with Anne-Maria, who felt that children should being listened to, but not the sole decider of what is and is not good for them.

Of the survey responders that thought children should not have a say in age of
consent laws, 50% were female compared to 57% male. These participants expressed
that they believe children are not yet fully developed mentally or emotionally and are
therefore “very impressionable and cannot make well founded choices for themselves” (Anonymous Survey Participant, 2007). Some referred to the fact that children should not have a say because they “are not 18 and do not yet make decisions about anything in our society - they are not competent” (Anonymous Survey Participant, 2007). Therefore, they should not have the right to make decisions about the age of consent.

Of the survey responders that thought children should have a say in age of consent laws, 16.6% were female compared to 43% male. These participants explained this belief by saying that because the law affects children, children are the only ones
who can “indicate how they think concerning the law and their opinion is of the utmost importance for amending laws which they have to experience” (Anonymous Survey Participant, 2007). Essentially, no one has a better handle on what children need and want than the children themselves.

Another argument put forth was that “children younger than 16 years old nowadays exist in their own sex culture and if you do not let them take part in a conversation about it, you are turning a blind eye to an important part of the population”(Anonymous Survey Participant, 2007). Children are sexual citizens just like everyone who is over the age of 16. Therefore, they should not be excluded from a dialog about their sexuality.

Student & Professional Interviews

The issue of whether or not children should be included in discussion and decisions made about age of consent laws is also addressed from a different perspective in the interviews I carried out with one very unique student and five professionals holding a variety of opinions on the issue.

The responses of my interview subjects can be broken down into three themes. Their replies revealed multiple concepts about

  • howchildren are silenced by society,
  • the ways in which they could in fact be included and
  • their opinions about whether or not children should be included,

in contrast to responses provided by survey responders. While the statements made in these interviews are merely the opinions of a small data pool, they reveal important themes that exist throughout society.

How are children silenced?

Children are silenced in one of two general ways: with moralistic devices and
with concrete devices.

  • Moralistic devices are representative of societal values and areused as a basis for the argument of why child sexuality is dangerous and immoral.
  • Concrete devices are the ways in which society is able to limit the power of children through laws and policies. 

The moralistic device that every instrument of silencing is based on is panic. At the root of the issue, the reason that the legal and moral walls of society cannot be breached to even bring this topic up as debatable is that “anyone arguing for reason and perspective is denounced as an apologist for ‘child abuse.’ There seems to be no room for rational discourse, only fear and panic” (Jason, 2007).

In many ways, Jason’s comparison of the issue of pedophilia being dealt with as “…a modern day witch-hunt or Red Scare” is evidenced by our society in many ways. The issue is no longer whether harm is done to the child, but rather the existence of the pedophile in general. Because the mere existence of the pedophile’s preferences is deemed predatory, it has turned into a hunt for the pedophiles, not for the criminals (Foucault, 1990).

This is revealed by the fact that there are independent websites that keep lists and addresses of known pedophiles, as well as where they work (Corporate Sex Offenders, 2007). [...]

I have had to created pseudonyms for certain participants of this study who fear what would happen if their real names were known. This is the most prevalent and unstoppable moral device used by society – a dialog cannot be achieved by anyone, let alone with involvement of children, due to the moral panic. [... ... ...]

Because it is a common belief that children cannot understand “true love,” they are therefore sealed off both from having a discussion about the nature of their sexuality and from having sexual encounters that society would consider acceptable.

Another key moralistic device was revealed in my interview with Jason. In response to the growing fears of pedophilia being “normalized” (Brown, 2003), Jason responded that “we should first consider the normalization of countless forms of abuse that our society has ritualized, institutionalized and routinised” (Jason, 2007). Through examples like the over-prescribing of medication to children, religious indoctrination and circumcision, he brings to light the fact that there is a moral hierarchy of controversial behaviors that are either deemed acceptable or unacceptable to normalize.
On this moral hierarchy, cross-generational relationships among children and adults are of the lowest acceptability – a truly taboo behavior. Therefore until there is a shift in the moral hierarchy, there is not even a forum for which to debate this issue in, let alone a way by which children could become involved in that debate.

The most evident and effective form of concrete silencing was discussed in my interview with Anne-Maria. When asked about her thoughts on the rights of children,
she immediately focused on the issue of the voting age in the Netherlands (18) and how she strongly believed that it should be lowered. In her opinion, society “shouldn’t put an age of consent on politics…It’s really weird that you can drink and have sex (when you are 16), but that you can’t decide on politics”. [... ...]

There is a belief that children have a specific place in society and when that position is violated, is makes adults uneasy. As Jason explains, this could be because “adults are afraid kids will say things they don’t want to hear…that sex isn’t nearly as “bad,” dangerous, or as hard to figure out as we’ve been led to believe…(and) that won’t do in an authoritarian ‘society’” (Jason, 2007). [... .... ...]

This is a catch-22 that exists in our society: constraints are placed on how educated and involved children can be, and then their consequent inability to exist independently is used as a means to keep their freedom of expression to a minimum.

Margriet also raised the issue that, when she was a young child in school, there was a book of “pictures of naked children and also of a girl sitting in like, a yoga position … I think her hand was somewhere around her pussy, and then it said ‘when I touch myself here, it feels very nice’. And I was like, this book is so, extremely forbidden here now”.

This is just one example of the ways by which,over time, sexual education materials have been censored in efforts to “protect” children. By closing off their gateway to a full, honest understanding of sexuality, society has taken away the ability for children to acquire a vocabulary with which to partake in a serious discourse about their feelings and thoughts on their own sexuality. 

Should children be included?

Among the responses that I received to this question, only one of the interview
participants believed that children should have complete control over what the age of
consent should be. [... ...]

There was a distinct theme of hesitancy in regards to a child’s ability to make decisions due in part to the view that the “opinion (of a child) is very emotionally colored … their Theory of Mind has to develop more”. The attitudes of those expressing uncertainty seemed to be driven by the notion that trusting an emotional child or adolescent who lacks in sexual experience to make a well balanced decision is somewhat precarious.[...]

It seems that while there is a consensus about the importance of including children in the debate on age of consent laws, there is still a fear even amongst the most liberal participants of this study that the decisions they make will not be in their best interests. What seems to be the key factor in whether the inclusion of young people is
supported is the way in which they are permitted to contribute.

How could children be included?

The most directly effective way to include children in the public debate would be, as Anne-Maria suggested, allowing them the right to vote at a younger age. [...]
However, this option is less than feasible due to deeply engrained, socially constructed views on the inability of children to be productive members of society.

The next most effective method, also suggested by Jason, would be for children to speak out through research. As Margriet explains, “I would see that their place in the
debate would be by … taking them as subjects of research, subjects of stories they can
tell and their experiences” (Margriet, 2007).

This way, opinions and stories could be heard outside of the “mainstream discourse (which operates) via media and pop-culture, (and) only includes the perspective of youth who were/are abused” (Jason, 2007). The notion is that quantitative and qualitative research will hopefully, at some level, be considered a more reliable source of information in contrast to the individual stories reported in the media which only discuss children who have been victimized. [....]

Margriet: children “first have to learn how to talk about sex. And mostly you learn that from your parents”. The key concept in this statement is not that children learn from their parents to talk specifically about sex, but rather that they learn how to have a rational dialog about any issue they wish to raise. Only then would they have the tools to actively participate is discussion about the issues that affect them.

In order for children’s opinions to be heard, [....] there must first be a change in the media ... so that a dialog could exist for children to partake in. At this point in time, ...  “children are invisible in the media. You almost never hear children talk about…sexual rights or war; about all the important topics they are not asked what they think about it”. [...]

As Steven Angelides (2003) explains, “the media is seen as a prime agent and conduit for expressing and arousing social anxieties,” and the basis of these expressions are the social constructions of good sex and bad sex, and how child sexuality has evolved into an example of “bad sex” when it is considered to be outside the realm of “child’s play.”

In a time when the United States House of Representatives uses its authority to pass a resolution condemning a research study (Rind et al., 1997[*]) because it states that certain types of child sexual abuse cause lasting harm while others do not, there is little room for children to express an opinion about the matter.

Another structural change that must take place in society before children will have the ability to speak out is a shift in the attitudes and practices of what Foucault refers to as “the new medical power” (Foucault, 1990).

As of now, there is no distinction made between harmful cross-generational relationships and those that do not cause harm when it comes to the psychological treatment of children. In this way, there is no possibility of positive sexual experiences with adults and “if his (the child’s) parents find out about it (the relationship), they can go to the police and socio-therapists … these people can hurt a child afterwards tremendously. What might have been a nice relation and experience turns out to be disastrous for the child” (“Richard,” 2007). What “Richard” refers to is the instant guilt and victimization that the child is taught to feel by those working in the mental health field, despite the fact there the relationship may have taken place consensually, if not, as it sometimes happens, at the request of the youth (Kinsey et al., 1953). [...]

Only when medical professionals begin listening to whether a child feels hurt as opposed to telling that child that they are hurt, will there be an opportunity for young people to speak out without their opinions being manipulated by the way they
have been told to feel.


Summary & Implications

Through my research, I have attempted to outline how every aspect of society,  both moral and concrete, has an effect on age of consent legislation aside from the population that the laws were supposedly created to protect – the children. All facets of society (most prominently government, media and the medical establishment) influence the opinions of the people, and simultaneously the opinions of the people influence the course of social constructs and the cultural climate. The overarching theme of the current cultural climate in regards to children is that their sexuality in general, with or without the involvement of adults, heavily stigmatized in our society. There is an untrue assumption that “minors don’t have sexual feelings” (“Richard,” 2007) and that they can only be “victims and not sexual beings” (Margriet, 2007).

In the 1978 radio broadcast of “The Danger of Sexuality,” psychiatrists responded to Foucault’s claim that the “new medical power” sought to ignore child sexuality by saying that though they agree that it exists, “child sexuality is a territory with its own geography, and that the adult must not enter” (Foucault, 1990).

Despite the admittance of a sexual culture existing amongst children, there is still a refusal to admit that the attractions of children may stray outside a child’s designated “geographical territory.” Only once the taboo of all aspects of child sexuality is broken can there be an honest dialog about what, in reality, goes on in children’s sexual culture and the “actual views, perspectives and voices of youth” (Jason, 2007) can be heard.

Recommendations for Further Research

I believe that it is extremely important to carry out further research on young people about this issue, and for that matter, every other issue that affects them. In our society, children do not have the opportunity to be heard, do not want to put in the effort, or have been made to believe that it is not their place to speak out. However, it is my belief that they must be recognized as citizens with at least the right to have their opinions acknowledged.

As Margriet said in our interview, “their place in the debate (on the age of consent) would be by interviewing them. Research – like taking them as subjects of research, subjects of stories they can tell and their experiences.” This is the only way to be sure that the laws being created are actually in favor of what those who they affect want and need.

- - -

For "Relevant Têrminolog", Appendix A, B and C, and "Works cited",
see the PDF version at > a_generation_silenced.pdf .