Originally Published 2013-05-14 00:00:00 Published on May 14, 2013
It was not a big surprise that the Bill that came into force as the 'The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013' on April 3 retained the age of consent at 18, taking away from the teenagers the right to make their sexual choices; a right that they had actually possessed for the last three decades.
TV media as the new mom and dad
No one is talking about the age of consent today. Yet less than two months ago the UPA’s proposition of reducing the age of consent from 18 to 16 as part of the Anti-Rape Bill triggered a series of TV debates. It was only after two to three days of discussion that it came to the fore that the age of consent had actually been 16 for the last three decades (since 1983) and only recently had been increased to 18 by the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in May 2012. In this context, the UPA version of the Anti-Rape Bill had demanded bringing the age of consent back to 16 again, to prevent consensual sexual relations between teenagers from being misrepresented as statutory rape.

The question was whether the age of consent should be retained at 18 or reduced back to 16. In the TV debates that followed across the range of news and opinion channels, TV itself assumed the role of a surrogate parent, taking the liberty to discuss unilaterally what is good for the teenagers, without really wanting to hear from them. Three facets stood out in this regard: focus on the morality of teenage sex, exclusion of teenagers themselves from the debate and the building up of opinion against the reducing of age of consent.

Firstly, while most debates recognised that teenage sex was common in both cities and villages, it was not seen as an important consideration while deciding the age of consent. In this regard, TV channels and discussion forums instead of focusing on the consequences of illegalising an already common practice, framed the debate around the ’moral question’ of teens having an active sexual life in the first place. The fact that teenagers are already making their choices and opting for consensual sex, and that they have had the legal sanction for the same since over three decades, was grossly overlooked. The debate was confined to whether the Indian state and the society at large should be ’encouraging’ or ’discouraging’ consensual sexual relations between teenagers.

Secondly, given that the age for marriage by law is 18 and 21 for women and men respectively, the bringing back of the age of consent to 16 then was seen as a sign of supporting pre-marital sex. In this context, with the already trenchant parental control in marriage choices, the age of consent became an even more contentious issue, threatening to encroach upon the parental supervision of their children’s choices. Thus, by disallowing any teenagers or representatives of their perspective on the debate, TV channels endorsed the opinion that teenagers were not mature enough to make or even articulate their choices.In this sense then TV discussions were reminiscent of dinner table conversations between parents about their children, where the children themselves are often asked to sit quietly and eat their vegetables. No further questions asked.

Further, much like in the case of any family drama, the parental right of making the choices for their children was re-affirmed and endorsed by a flurry of extended relatives. ’Experts’ of law, gender, sociology appeared on the different channels, making the same arguments against the same opponents in the same debate. Hosts and moderators often took the high moral stand by arguing for teenagers to have the right to make their sexual choices. The discussion however stayed within the realms of an either-or debate: of the state/society allowing or withdrawing teenagers’ sexual rights.

The agency of teenagers and the complex legal, social and psychological issues associated with it got little space or time on these debates and remained largely unexplored. They were undoubtedly some who tried to bring out the hazards of making consensual sex between teenagers of the ages 16-18 illegal . Some others also attempted to bring out more valid criticisms against reducing the age of consent. They raised the problems in determining an exact age when an individual reaches adulthood in different contexts: with respect to sexual maturity, in context of juvenile crime, for the purpose of universal franchise or for taking the decision of marriage. However, these voices did not get due attention with the larger debate endorsing a linear logic:that reducing age of consent would encourage sexual relations between teenagers, which would in turn lead to erosion of moral values.

Within a short of four to five days thus, TV channels had rounded up the debate. In this sense, though claiming to be objective and inviting a host of people to participate in the discussion, the TV discussion forums provided a highly biased and limited understanding of the age of consent. It was not a big surprise then that the bill that came into force as the ’The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013’ on April 3 retained the age of consent at 18, taking away from the teenagers the right to make their sexual choices; a right that they had actually possessed for the last three decades.

Courtesy : DNA

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