You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?

Interestingly, I've recently heard some people questioning the supremacy of informed consent in the context of adult/child sex at all. It is certainly true that some children are better equipped to give consent to things than others, but it can also be argued that the question is not "can the child give informed consent?" but "is it OK to have sex with a child despite the fact that they cannot give informed consent?" (I would just note the importance of the word "informed" here: as I will come to later, this is not to deny the necessity of "consent" in the sense of mere willingness on the part of the child.) The best way to see why is to consider other issues of consent involving children. For example, performing surgery on a child. By the sexual consent rule, this would be child abuse in any circumstance. Similarly, defending legal rights on behalf of a child would be strictly prohibited and always abuse. These absurd consequences certainly show that there are exceptions to the informed consent rule, and it turns out that showing why sex is not an exception is not easy.

A common response is to suggest that these things are exceptions as they are "necessary". But this argument crumbles when you consider that neither of these examples need be necessary - they could very well be merely "nice to have". Necessary actions surely are exceptions, but do not constitute all of them. A better response seems to be that an exception arises if an action is "responsible". to do. Necessary actions are exceptions because they are the class of actions that are responsible to do but irresponsible not to do. (i.e. they are "necessary" because not only is it OK to do them, but there is a duty to do them). But this still leaves the class of actions that is responsible either way.

So according to this theory, it is OK for an adult to have responsible sex with a child, but not irresponsible sex. The key point here is that the adult has retained liability thatis removed by the giving of informed consent. That is, if an adult comes to harm due to sexual activity they have given informed consent to, their partner does not shoulder any blame. But in the case of a child, because they child cannot give informed consent, their partner is to blame. That is not to say, however, that responsible sexual activity which does not put the child at risk of harm is itself blameworthy. Finally, I would just cover some issues as to how the judgment as to responsibility could be made. Firstly, sex with an unwilling child is certainly irresponsible and thus always wrong. To have sex with a willing child may or may not be wrong depending on whether it puts the child at risk of harm (in particular physical or infectious).

Finally, it's interesting to highlight that this theory in and of itself does not come to any particular ethical conclusion; hard empirical investigation is required to answer the question "can adult/child sex ever be responsible?" If children are indeed always harmed by sexual activity, then it cannot be, and is always wrong. If, however, science can show that (for example) an adult having physically appropriate sexual relations with a willing child, in the absence of social taboos and so on, is predictably non-harmful, then the usual story might need revision.

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