Teens are not the only ones who may be confused about the legal definition of sexual consent in Canada. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, while the vast majority (96%) of Canadians surveyed agreed that sexual activity should be consensual, only about 1/3 understood what sexual consent actually means.
Some Canadians falsely believed that consent becomes less important the longer couples are together and 10% wrongly believed that consent was not required at all between spouses or long term partners. Over 20% of those surveyed mistakenly believed that if a woman sends a man an explicit photo through text or email it is always an invitation to offline sexual activity.
Respecting personal boundaries is one key element of any healthy and respectful relationship. However, for young people there are also legal considerations that deal with the age of consent. In Canada, the age of consent to most sexual activity is 16, with two “close in age” exceptions.
Practically speaking this means that...
When an exception does not apply, individuals under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to any sexual activity. When an exception does not apply, sexual contact with someone under the age of 16 is sexual assault.
The law is quite clear. First, sexual activity without consent is sexual assault. Second, young people who are not at the age of consent cannot consent to sexual activity. A person below this age cannot legally consent to any sexual activity, regardless of what they say or do. If an individual is charged with sexual assault in these circumstances, they can’t simply say that they believed the other person was old enough to consent. They must have made reasonable steps to find out how old the other person really was.
Anyone can be the victim of sexual assault, regardless of whether they are young or old, rich or poor, girl or boy. It can happen regardless of their ability, appearance, religion or race. It can happen morning, noon or night. It can happen with a stranger, a family member or friend. It’s never okay and it’s never the victim’s fault.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, it is important to understand that there is no one right way to respond. Victims need support but what is helpful to one victim may not be what another victim wants or needs. There are different options available, including contacting the police, a friend or family member, a school counsellor, a sexual assault centre or hotline, such as the Kids Help Phone. Victims don’t need to feel alone – help and support is available.
Parents and teens may have concerns about sexting and be unclear about its legality. They may have seen media reports of teens facing criminal charges, some as serious as possessing or distributing child pornography. Perhaps they have heard about newer laws designed specifically to deal with the sharing of intimate images. In any event, when it comes to trying to make some sense of it all, it almost always comes back to one thing – consent.
In Canada, it is generally legal for two consenting adults to send or receive sexually related images.
Sexting when under 18 may be legal if:
- it does not depict any unlawful sexual activity
- all parties involved have consented
- the picture/video is kept private and not distributed.
When it comes to sexuality and relationships, most people place a very high value on some level of privacy, not wanting their personal communications and displays of affection to be exposed for others to see. While the modern world of information and communication technology offers us the ability to communicate with friends, family, and relationship partners in very fast and effective ways, it also exposes us to risks to our privacy and this is particularly the case with sexting.