After a recent revival of the online #MeToo movement in France, French government officials are seeking to make the legal age of consent 15 years old in an attempt to clear the way for punishments of long-ago child sex abusers.
The Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti announced Tuesday that “An act of sexual penetration by an adult on a minor under 15 will be considered a rape,” and perpetrators will no longer be able to claim consent in order to weaken the charges.
“Under current French law, sexual relations between an adult and a minor under 15 are banned,” according to The Associated Press. “Yet the law accepts the possibility that someone under 15 is capable of consenting to sex, leading to cases where an adult is prosecuted for sexual assault instead of rape, and therefore faces a lighter prison sentence.”
While the change has not yet become law, advocates for harsher penalties against abusers say the announcement is an important step. “It’s very good that there is this revived debate, that there is an idea of a minimum age (of consent),” said Fatima Benomar, whose group Les Effrontees has pushed for stronger laws against sexual abusers. “This will make adults more responsible.”
The legal age of consent in the United States varies by state between the ages of 16 to 18. Countries in the Middle East, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Iran, and Pakistan do not specify an age of consent but require that the individuals be married. This is also true for Libya and Sudan. The lowest ages in the world exist in Japan (13), Angola and the Philippines (12), and Nigeria (11).
The AP reports that the previous lack of age of consent in France (combined with statutes of limitations) made it more arduous to prosecute people who were accused of rape.
Previous legal time limits made it difficult to investigate many prominent figures, including lesser known cases and high-profile ones, such as Jeffrey Epstein, modeling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, a cardinal, Philippe Barbarin who was convicted and acquitted of allegedly covering up for an abusive priest, and a surgeon, Joel le Scouarnec, who was convicted of sexually abusing over 300 children for decades.
The ministry is in talks with victims’ groups about the possibility of “toughening punishment of incestuous abuse and extending or abolishing the statute of limitations on sexual violence against children.” Under current law, child victims can come forward to make an accusation until they are 48 years old, but the AP notes that often sexual abuse causes “such deep trauma that it can take decades for victims to speak out.”
An earlier attempt to change France’s age of consent laws came about three years ago during the global #MeToo movement, but it did not succeed due to legal issues. Last month, the impetus for such change resurfaced as allegations of a well-known French political expert, Olivier Duhamel, came to light. It began a fresh #MeTooInceste movement that resulted in tens of thousands of people coming forward with stories.
Minister Dupond-Moretti did say, however, that exceptions will be made for teenagers who have consensual sex.