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Both Dallam et al. (2001) and Ondersma et al. (2001) rejected the notion of consent; the latter complained that we emphasized some adults' recollections of their experiences as wanted, which they argued implies that children and adolescents can make informed decisions about sex with adults. Because consent, like terminology, was a primary stimulus for the many attacks on our original article, it is important to address this issue.
First, consent does not always mean informed consent. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1981), for example, defines consent
The first definition may be termed simple consent, the one used in the primary studies we examined, as well as in other nonclinical research
Simple consent, which might alternatively be labeled willingness or assent, can be observed in adolescents or children in a whole range of behaviors. As discussed previously in this rebuttal and elsewhere (Rind, Bauserman, & Tromovitch, 2000; Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, 2000a), the simple consent construct has predictive utility, making it a scientifically valid construct.
The second definition involves informed consent, which was not implied in our study or any others just cited. At no point did we claim in any way that adolescents or children, even if they perceive their sexual contact with an adult as willing, are providing informed consent in an adult sense.
Because our critics appear to view even simple consent, willingness, or assent as impossible by definition, on the basis of legal and moral arguments (e.g., Finkelhor, 1979b, 1984), they made errors in inference. For example, as shown in Tables 1 and 6, all definitions in the junior and senior high school surveys and the community surveys that Dallam et al. (2001) used to make broad statements about CSA all specified unwanted CSA, not CSA in general (i.e., socio-legal CSA).
Clearly, many participants in national, community, college, and secondary school samples seem willing to make distinctions about whether their sexual contacts were wanted or unwanted, willing or unwilling.
Firm statements are made about informed sexual consent, as if this construct has been empirically studied. To our knowledge, it has not. Instead, opinion is drawn from moral philosophy and the law.
Ondersma et al. (2001) cited Finkelhor (1979b) as an example of cogent thinking on this issue. Finkelhor argued that harm is not required to condemn CSA. Rather, it is wrong because children cannot consent because they do not know what they are getting into and cannot say no. These shortcomings are no problem for nonsexual behaviors, Finkelhor (1984) later argued, because CSA is more likely to be harmful.
This circular reasoning is not cogent. With respect to the law, statutes vary considerably across nations. Whereas the median age of consent is 16 in the United States, it is 14 in Europe, ranging from 12 to 17 (Graupner, 2000). At times it has been set as high as 21 but historically has been considerably lower, with an age of 10 in most U.S. states before the 1880s (Jenkins, 1998).
Thus, many cases considered CSA in current U.S. research are not legally such in other Western countries or even in the United States in the past. The law can also be contradictory, as in the case of teenage girls who can consent to sex with much older men in many states if married but cannot otherwise. In short, legal statutes are not a reliable guide for scientific evaluation of ability to consent.
In a related area (consent to an abortion in adolescence), the APA prepared an amicus curiae brief for the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1989 in which, on the basis of a review of cognitive, social, and moral development, they concluded
These conclusions, which were based on developmental research in many areas, cast doubt on the validity of automatic inclusion of adolescents into the category of CSA on the basis of an informed consent criterion. This validity is further weakened by the opinions of various European governmental commissions assigned to study the legal age of sexual consent, most of which recommended 14 (e.g., Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland; Graupner, 1997).