[Dash of SAS] 12 vs. 18: The age of consent

Two women brought this matter to my attention on two different occasions this past week. 

Myrza Sison, editor-in-chief of Cosmo Philippines, emailed me to say that the very low age of consent (one of the lowest in the world) shocked her.

In her interview with Cosmo US“Why Twentysomething Filipina Women Often Have to Live Double Lives,” Sison was asked how she handles the coverage of sensitive issues like sex and abortion in the devoutly Catholic Philippines—and in light of the age of consent being so young. 

Sison asserted that sex education should begin at the start of adolescence and lamented the fact that SexEd is left out in many school curricula. Given this and sensitivities like abortion being illegal in the Philippines, Cosmo bolsters its coverage of contraception and sexual reproductive health rights.

Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel, executive director of women’s health NGO, Roots of Health, wrote about age of consent in her column.

Evangelista-Swanepoel pointed out that a 12-year old is typically in the 6th grade, hardly what would be considered as a position of emotional and physical maturity to make an informed decision to have sex.

Problematic 

Setting the age of consent at 12 is problematic in itself, but when we zoom out to look at the bigger picture, we can also see that the law is inconsistent with our other existing laws related to sexual health.

The HIV/AIDS Prevention Law prohibits anyone below 18-years-old from getting an HIV anti-body test without parental consent. Similarly, the Reproductive Health Law prohibits minors from accessing contraceptives at public health clinics without parental consent. (READ: Why the RH Bill is also a youth issue)

Adolescence is a tough confusing stage. You’re too young to go to the bar, but too old to go to the zoo. And given our existing laws, Filipino adolescents are old enough to engage in sex but are not old enough to access HIV tests or contraceptives.

They are prohibited from accessing safeguards that would protect them from the risks of unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections like HIV – physical hazards that they would be exposed as a result of having sex.

What they do have access to is pornography in the myriad of ways that it is available on-line (and some of our street billboards, I might add), hook up apps like Grindr, Tinder and Facebook groups where clan meet ups and eyeballs are arranged. 

Speaking metaphorically, they are going off to “play the field” of dating and relationships without proper training, adequate preparation, or education.

And the ramifications of this have already begun to show. The Philippines has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the region. We are one of nine countries in the world where rate of new HIV infections continues to increase by more than 25 percent. (READ: HIV and teen pregnancy: A national youth crisis)

CONSENT. Children under the age of 18 are in sexual limbo: they are curious about sex and want to experiment, but they are rarely given the education and tools to protect themselves. Image courtesy of Shuttershock

CONSENT. Children under the age of 18 are in sexual limbo: they are curious about sex and want to experiment, but they are rarely given the education and tools to protect themselves.

Image courtesy of Shuttershock

Emotional hazards 

A visiting foreigner engaged in development work asked what kind of sex education young Filipinos get considering the prohibitive nature of our laws and the strong unspoken rules of propriety and conservatism.

“Prayer,” one person in the group answered. 

“Cross your legs. And cross your fingers, too.”  I answered, alluding to how avoiding the physical hazards of being sexually active are sometimes seen as a matter of luck.

Sex education is summarized and limited to: Don’t have it. 

But who are we kidding? Filipino youth are having sex and they are starting to do so at a younger and younger age.

The Young Adult Fertility Survey (YAFS) conducted by the University of the Philippines showed the number of young Filipinos (both males and females) who have sex before the age of 18 increased from 13% in 1994 to 23% in 2013. 

Additionally, YAFS estimates that 1.4 million young people have engaged in casual sex, with about 600,000 having had FUBU or "fuck buddy."

Of those who reported engaging in casual sex, only 18% used a condom. Not very surprising considering that, as minors, they would not be given condoms in public health clinics.

They could always buy them, but they would have to steel themselves for the embarrassment of asking the pharmacist across the counter for a prophylactic. (READ: On preventing HIV/AIDS: Are you afraid of condoms?)

Emotional hazards

By not giving adolescents proper sex education, we are missing out on an opportunity to educate them about taking precautions that expose them to the emotional hazards of sexual activity.

We are losing out on the importance of talking about taking care of your emotional well-being, knowing and setting your boundaries, your right to say no, protecting your self-worth and self-respect – the very things you need to watch out for when you share your body with another person. (Read: [DASH of SAS] Talking Sex to Kids)

We can go on and on about how kids should not be having sex; how they should temper their fiery, aggressive behavior, but that would be a simplification, a deliberate oversight of the reckless carefree ways that marked our own youth. Besides, it is obvious by now that that strategy has failed us.

We would be a much better people, a much better nation if we created a safe, non-judgmental environment for Filipino adolescents—starting with modifying our laws so that they are consistent in ensuring that they protect rather than inadvertently punish our youth. – Rappler.com

(Some readers challenge the statement made in this opinion piece that 12 is the age of consent in the Philippines. The confusion arises because there are 3 laws operating. To clarify, Republic Act 8353 (Anti-Rape Law) says in Section 2 that sexual act without intimidation or abuse is not considered rape if the woman is 12 years old and above. Technically, that’s consent. However, women’s rights advocate Atty. Claire Padilla explained that, if parties want to prove that there was money or coercion involved in sex with those 12-17 years old, they can pursue a case under Republic Act 7610 or the Law Against Child Abuse. If a male who is 12-15 years old who consensually have sex is not liable under RA 7610, then there is RA 10630 or the amended Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, which can make males 15 years and one day to 17 years old liable for rape. – Editors)