In Golden, Colorado yesterday, a girl who had a sexual relationship with her former high school basketball coach reluctantly testified against him in a Child Sex Assault trial. She was under the age of 18 at the time of the relationship, but she testified that she consented to the relationship and presumably enjoyed it and was not harmed by it.
In Colorado, consent cannot be used as a defense for a child sex assault charge, though. The argument is that children are too young to be able to fully understand the decision to consent to a sexual relationship with an adult. But, is that really the case?
What psychologists know from years of research is that kids make poor decisions. They cannot think through the complexities of difficult situations and weigh the pros and cons of their potential actions in the same way adults can.
What we also know from research is that kids who are 15 years old make the same quality of decisions as 18 year-olds do. That is not to say that 18 year-olds make good decisions--it just means that the average 15 year-old has about the same decision-making ability as the average 18 year-old does. And, we typically grant 18 year-olds a wide range of decision-making rights, including whether or not to legally consent to a relationship with a much older adult.
In Colorado, this magical age of 15 and the decision-making abilities it comes with are codified into the child sex assault laws. For kids under the age of 15, it is considered child sex assault if the perpetrator is 5 years older than the victim. For kids ages 15 to 18, the allowable age difference is 10 years.
However, the bigger picture with regard to not allowing consent as a defense in a child sex assault case, regardless of the age of the child, is the potential harm that is caused by this type of a sexual relationship. It may be that this girl from Golden was not harmed by the relationship with her former basketball coach. Maybe it was good for her. Or, maybe she does not yet understand the harm it has caused her. There are likely to be kids who are not harmed by having sexual relationships with adults, but those kids are in the extreme minority. The vast majority of children who have a relationship with an adult, even if it is "consensual," suffer a great deal of harm. Trauma, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, future relationship problems, sexual dysfunction--these are but a few of the common problems victims of child sex assault face, even when these victims think they have consented to the relationship.
I feel for the girl who was forced to testify against her former basketball coach, a man she deeply cared for and who she thought treated her well. She does not feel harmed by this sexual relationship, and I assume she does not want to see her former "boyfriend" suffer for no reason. But, this guy is toast. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence against him, and he has no real legal defense for his actions. It is likely he will spend time in prison and years on parole afterward. He will be a registered sex offender, and he will never get another chance to potentially ruin a child's life again.
Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.