Age of consent laws have been of interest to me since watching the indie revenge thriller Hard Candy, in which 32-year old Jeff tries seducing 14-year old Hayley. This makes Jeff not a pedophile, but an ephebophile, and there’s a big difference between the two. In yesterday’s Times article Carol Sarler upholds the distinction over the protests of one Michele Elliott:
“Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and spokesman on child protection for the Association of Chief Police Officers, suggested greater clarity in the labelling of sex offenders: it is incorrect to say that those who have sex with underage teenagers are pedophiles — and if we say they are, we risk overestimating the scale of the problem of pedophilia.
“With predictable fury, Michele Elliott, the director of the children’s charity Kidscape, rounded on the policeman’s wish to reclassify those who have sex with youngsters between 13 and 16: ‘He is saying they are not pedophiles and they bloody well are.’
“If Miss Elliott would care to borrow my dictionary, she would discover that they bloody well aren’t. A pedophile is defined as one who is sexually attracted to children; children are defined as those between birth and puberty. What our teen fanciers are, in fact, is ephebophiliacs: adults attracted to postpubescent adolescents.”
There’s obviously a difference, because pedophilia is intrinsically wrong (or at least, most of us believe so), while ephebophilia is conditionally and arbitrarily wrong, depending on what society says about it. As Sarler notes:
“[Pedophilia] goes to the defiance of a law of Nature… [It] is to have sex with somebody who is, if you will, not ‘ready’. By contrast, to have sex with somebody who has passed the age of puberty is merely to defy a law of Man — and a pretty arbitrary law at that. We cannot agree between one border and the next at what age a boy or girl is emotionally developed enough to give informed consent: Malta and The Netherlands think 12, Canada and Italy weigh in at 14, cautious Greece holds out for 15 and the good burghers of Iceland go as high as 17.”
Here’s a site depicting age of consent laws around the world.
Obviously what one country or state thinks is fine, another will throw you in jail for. (And there are homophobic biases: ages of consent can vary within country or state depending on orientation/preference.) Sarler says, quite rightly:
“As long as the law is the law, [the ephebophile] deserves a smacked paw if he gives in to his excitement. But he does not deserve the same opprobrium as the [pedophile] — and nor do we deserve that our police forces’ time be needlessly spent in his pursuit rather than that of the far rarer, but far more dangerous, bogeyman proper.”
But back to Hard Candy. What’s amusing about the film is that Jeff is committing an ephebophiliac felony by Californian standards (where the age of consent is 18), but doing nothing wrong by Canadian standards — the irony being that Ellen Page, who plays Hayley, is Canadian. The age of consent in Canada is 14, that of the character Hayley. Canadians who watch Hard Candy might be a bit puzzled at the film’s premise. What exactly is the problem here? What’s wrong with these uptight Californians?
Of course, it does come out in the story that Jeff is also a pedophile, when Hayley stumbles on his stash of kiddie porn. He appears, then, to be a closet pedophile and an active ephebophile. One critic has suggested that the filmmaker’s choice to make Jeff both was gratuitous, in the sense that it plays on exaggerated tendencies of people to associate one with the other, as if ephebophilia is as bad as pedophilia, or as if a person who is sexually drawn to teens is necessarily drawn to children too. Given the incredible reaction of Michele Elliot to Terry Grange, I think the critic has a good point. But I still love the movie.