Can Kids Consent?

Back in 1983, at the young age of 18, my old friend Max More published an article saying he didn’t see what’s wrong with adults propositioning kids for sex.

It is difficult to comprehend how merely becoming friendly with a child, and then encouraging him or her to indulge in sexual activities, can be a violation of rights. … Many people will object that … individuals below the age of consent, do not know what they are doing, and therefore the compliance is not voluntary at all. I believe this argument is fallacious, and that it is invariably presented by a kind of mental reflex action, and not as a result of conscious deliberation. … Does it really matter whether a young child has experienced any form of sexual arousal before? Does it really matter whether the child has any understanding of sex? Sex is just another source of pleasure, a potentially potent source perhaps, but basically little different to any other. If there is nothing objectionable about an adult giving a child sweets or toys, why is giving sexual pleasure wrong? … If a child does not want to go to court, has not told the parents about his or her sexual activities, and has shown no signs of upset or fear, then there is no justification for assuming the use of coercion. (more)

Today, Max backpedals:

In my foolish arrogance, I wrote about a topic that I was then too naïve to properly understand. … I was right to defend the free speech rights of a highly unpopular group. I was right to question the validity of a universal law of consent that ignores the maturity or lack of maturity of each individual. … Where I was wrong is in basing a view of maximal freedom on an inadequate conception of consent. Defining fully the conditions for real consent is difficult, but clearly lack of resistance is insufficient to indicate consent. If someone lacks understanding of what they are getting into, they may have agreed but have not consented. Consent requires agreement after thoughtful consideration. (more)

But we almost never understand the full implications of our actions. Who really understands the implications of getting married, having kids, choosing a career, or choosing a national citizenship?  But we usually say adults consent to such things.  So what does it take to enable consent?

When someone makes you an offer, it is reasonable to expect them to reveal possible downsides, and even to help you to hear from folks who recommend against accepting their offer. If your choice has a big effect on a third party (i.e., parents who’d fund a pregnancy), it can be reasonable to seek their approval. And if your choice isn’t very time critical, it is also reasonable to have some time to think it over. “Many people have come to regret this; George knows more. Tell me your choice tomorrow.”

Yes kids can make mistakes and we might want to limit their ability to make mistakes.  But adults can make lots of mistakes too; why treat kids so differently? Yes people change over time, and so we may want to limit how much young folks can commit their older selves. And yes teen brains change more rapidly than adult brains. But if we let 20 year olds make huge commitments, like marriage or citizenship, that limit their quite different 60 year old selves, why shouldn’t we let 15 year olds make choices limiting their 25 year old selves. Do teen sex choices limit distant future choices anywhere near as much as do marriage, kids, careers, etc.?

Aside from the issues I’ve mentioned, my training in the social and human sciences doesn’t offer me any more analytical tools to distinguish thirteen year olds from adults regarding sexual consent. I’m not saying kids can resaonably consent; I’m just suggesting that standard theories offer little support for saying they can’t.

So why are we so reluctant to let kids make their own choices, and yet so adamant that similar adults choices should be free? One obvious explanation is status; we affirm our higher status as adults by limiting what kids can do. But I suspect there is more:

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why … we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

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