Why are French officials trying to set a new age of consent in the country?
Here’s a shocking fact you can drop at your next Zoom get-together: the French don’t have an age of consent. Give everybody a few minutes to mull this over and express their outrage/amusement, then follow it up with: “They’re working on it though.”
French citizens celebrated this Wednesday, as the government moved forward on setting the age of sexual consent at 15-years-old. If that seems pretty low, the glass-half-full argument is that 15 is higher than non-existent. In case you’re curious, most states in the U.S. have their age of consent set as 16, with a handful having it at 17 or 18.
So how is it that the French government is getting around to finally setting an age of consent after all these years? Unsurprisingly, it has to do with sexual abuse accusations.
Here’s the thing: if you don’t have an age of consent, it becomes much more difficult to prosecute offenders for rape. You can still prosecute them for sexual assault, but they’ll be facing a lighter prison sentence. So, even though France bans sexual relationships between an adult & a minor, the current law accepts the possibility that someone under fifteen is capable of consenting to sex.
Officially establishing the French age of consent as 15 will take care of a problem that has plagued victims of sexual abuse (and the prosecutors advocating for them) for decades. Now, in the words of Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti: “An act of sexual penetration by an adult on a minor under 15 will be considered a rape.” Offenders can’t use consent as an excuse to diminish the charges.
As an example of how relevant the new French age of consent will be, we can point to a case considered in France’s highest court on Wednesday. In it, a woman accused several firefighters of raping her when she was between the ages of 13 and 15. The charges had been downgraded to sexual assault by a lower court. The woman’s lawyers are hoping the higher court will reclassify them as rape.
This isn’t the first effort to set a French age of consent, but it looks like it will be the first successful one. Three years ago, when the #MeToo movement became a global force, an attempt at setting France’s age of consent went down in flames due to legal complications. Recent sexual abuse scandals have set the stage for the government to revisit the debate and enact new laws.
Olivier Duhamel, a prominent French political expert, was hit with allegations of incestuous sexual abuse last month. The accusations sparked an avalanche of similar stories over social media: the #MeTooInceste movement. Other notable figures in French cinema & politics have been accused since. Duhamel stepped down from his many professional positions saying he was “the target of personal attacks.”
Duhamel’s case is, of course, another example of why having a French age of consent would be key in the legal outcome of the accusations. The authorities are currently investigating the accusation from Duhamel’s stepdaughter alleging he abused her twin brother when they were in their early teens. Under the new law, this would be classified as rape, regardless of whether there was consent or not.
The changes in French laws might go beyond establishing an age of consent. The Justice Ministry is looking into setting tougher punishments for incestuous abuse. Perhaps more importantly, the discussion is open to either extend or abolish the statute of limitations on sexual violence against children.
Currently, the law allows child victims of sexual abuse to file charges until they are 48-years-old. Even though that may seem like a long time in between the abuse and the accusation, victims’ groups argue it’s not long enough. The trauma sexually abused children suffer is so deep, it can take several decades for them to speak out against their abusers.
While the new law hasn’t been passed yet, French citizens have reacted positively to the announcement. And they should: according to the World Health Organization, one in every five women and one in every 13 men report having been sexually abused as children.