by TIM SMITH
The law in Bermuda is clear. Children under the age of 16 cannot consent to have sex. No exceptions, no grey areas. Yet, while predators seek to find ways of sexually exploiting young people without breaking that law, campaigners face a never-ending battle to keep them safe.
Two years ago, the Bermuda government introduced anti-grooming legislation, making it illegal for people in a position of trust to have sexual relations with teenagers aged 16 or 17, even though they are over the age of consent.
The question for campaigner Debi Ray-Rivers, the executive director of the child sexual abuse prevention organisation Saving Children and Revealing Secrets (Scars), is whether enough has been done to make young people aware of this protection.
“I’m not sure if teenagers have enough knowledge of this law,” she said. “It’s important that parents are aware so they can share this information with their children and teens. Adults should know what is considered criminal when it comes to sexual behaviour with a child under the age of 16 and what is criminal for those in positions of trust with a 16- and 17-year-old.
“Many perpetrators, I believe, were familiar with the law before the new legislation, so they began grooming, manipulating and deceiving a child at 14 and then had sex when the child reached 16. That way they didn’t break the law.”
For people over 16, Ms Ray-Rivers explained that consent is “an agreement or permission expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions that are mutually understandable to all parties involved, to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time”. This consent can be withdrawn at any time.
None of that applies to children under 16.
“Even if a 14-year-old begs, agrees, or assents to engage in sexual activity with a 22-year-old male, the 22-year-old can be held liable for violating the law because the 14-year-old cannot consent because she is under the age of 16,” Ms Ray-Rivers said. “It’s against the law. Even if the 22-year-old believed that the 14-year-old consented.”
If two people under 16 have sex, the matter would be considered by the Department of Child and Family Services and the Department of Public Prosecutions, to ascertain if a prosecution should begin. The parents may also face prosecution, depending on the circumstances.
Ms Ray-Rivers said: “The responsibility and risk that comes with sexual activity is huge. What if the 15-year-old becomes pregnant? Is the 15-year-old financially capable of caring for a young child? Is the 15-year-old emotionally mature enough for the responsibility that comes with being a parent?
“If the 15-year-old was sexually molested by an older more powerful individual the life-long ramifications can be detrimental and devastating for the life of that 15-year-old and their family. This experience can lead to years of pain, shame, and trauma.”
Rakaya Simmons, a 23-year-old law student, has called publicly for better sex education in the school curriculum.
“The age of consent is not something that is general knowledge,” she said. “You would think it is, but I always get ‘17, 18’ and I have even heard as young as 14 or 15. I have also been in conversations where there was confusion about whether the age of consent was different for each gender. This sounds silly and unrealistic, but it is reality.
“I believe that we just leave too much room for speculation or uncertainty. These are not topics that should be ignored in the curriculum because most times there is a right or wrong answer, there is no in-between.”
Ms Simmons said sexual abuse and exploitation-prevention classes should play a prominent role in the curriculum: “Parents can also do their part by enforcing the education at home like every other subject. Just like how they would help them with their math or science homework,” she added.
Bermuda public schools teach sexual health from Primary 1 upwards, using the HealthSmart curriculum. The Department of Education says this helps children establish and maintain healthy relationships, be sexually abstinent, act in ways that prevent or reduce sexually risky behaviour, and treat others with courtesy and respect.
A spokeswoman added: “The Department of Education is engaged in education reform and curricula are being reviewed across grade levels. The curriculum will determine the amount of time that is spent on any subject, including sexual health.”
Regardless of age, of course, there is one basic principle when it comes to consent.
“No means no,” Ms Ray-Rivers said. “I’m not sure means no. I don’t want to means no. Please stop means no. Crying means no. Silence means no. Agreeing only after being pressured or coerced means no. Coercion is not consent.”
Ms Ray-Rivers said parents should help their children understand this principle: “We should help build a child’s self-esteem and confidence. Recognise inappropriate behaviours, and help them find their voice to feel confident in saying ‘no’,” she said.
“The key is to build foundation and knowledge about their bodies and privacy in a healthy way. Children need help with this, and it begins with educating, equipping and empowering them with body safety education at an early age.
“Teach them about respecting their body and other children’s bodies. Help both girls and boys understand boundaries and talk to them as they get in their teen years about the risks of engaging in sexual behaviours.”
Parents should also seek open communication with their teenagers to encourage healthy ways of managing sexual urges, identifying triggers, dealing with peer pressure and reinforcing that nobody should be forced or persuaded to engage in sexual activities.
Ms Ray-Rivers said: “As we build our children’s self-esteem and confidence, we should provide them with empowerment over their bodies, and find their voice when it comes to boundary violations, this allows them to self-advocate.”
For more sources, or to sign up for Scars training, which teaches adults how to prevent, recognise and react responsibly to child sexual abuse, visit the Scars website at scarsbermuda.com