Elmo puppeteer and age of consent

The age of consent, healthy sexuality and keeping children safe

Current news stories about allegations of sexual abuse by Elmo puppeteer, Kevin Clash, raise important questions about the age of consent. I want to share with you some of my thoughts, and excerpts from conversations with colleagues Jenny Coleman, Lucy Greenberg, Kristen Houser and Karen Baker about this important topic. I hope they help you make sense of the significance of this story – and the larger issues about how to create sexual safety.

- Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director

Why is age of consent important to discuss in the context of child sexual abuse?

Children and younger teens cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult, peer or older teen. Most states recognize that children and teens can be easily tricked, pressured or persuaded, and are raised to obey older youth or adults as authority figures. All of these factors explain why children and adolescents do not have the maturity to give informed consenti to sexual behaviors with others. Read more in our Online Help Center

What is meant by age of consent?

Age of consent refers to the minimum age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts. The statutes defining the age of consent vary from state to state and specify ages of consent ranging from 16-18 years old.

What is the purpose of age of consent lawsi?

These laws are intended to protect youth from manipulation while not infringing on developmentally expected sexual activity. Some states have age ranges that do not criminalize consensual sexual activity among similarly aged peers, but do criminalize sexual relations when differences in age, life experience and resources create a power imbalance. Add celebrity status the mix and the power imbalance can be even greater. (Kristen Houser, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape)

What do parents need to know about age of consent?

When parents have concerns about their teenaged son or daughter sexual behaviors, information about age of consent can help them talk with their teenagers about what this means in practical terms. When there are greater concerns regarding adults’ interactions with teenagers, it is even more important to understand age of consent lawsi to define steps to protect their child. Our tip sheet Talking to Children and Teens emphasizes key needs for healthy conversations with kids about sexuality. (Jenny Coleman, Helpline Coordinator, Stop It Now!)

Recognizing that human sexuality can be confusing for adults as well as for teens, it is important for parents to have on-going conversations with their children across the life span about healthy bodies, boundaries and relationships. NSVRC has a very useful resource for resource for talking with teens about healthy sexuality (.pdf) and a tip sheet about the importance of consent in healthy sexual interactions and how to define and establish consent. Other resources are available at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

What can advocates and concerned adults do?

There are more than 30 bills circulating in Congress to address child sexual abuse. This offers an opportunity for advocates to mobilize to ask for a standardization of the statutes addressing age of consent. Many of these bills are narrowly focused on mandatory reporting and relate to suspected abuse or abuse that has already occurred. Stop It Now! supports a proactive approach to preventing sexual abuse before there is harm to a child. Creating a culture of prevention could be served well by having a standard age of consent across the country. (Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director, Stop It Now!)

The NSVRC’s National Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) prevention campaign each April provides another opportunity to highlight this important issue. The 2013 campaign “it’s time…to talk about it! Talk early, talk often, prevent sexual violence” provides resources to help adults talk to children about healthy relationships. We encourage adults to talk to other adults about concerns or “red flag” behaviors that may indicate a potential problem. Get this year’s campaign materials. (Karen Baker, Director, National Sexual Violence Resource Center)

Other resources for parents