A Christchurch sadomasochist has this week had two convictions quashed: one of injuring with intent to injure, and another of wounding with intent to injure. The charges had followed a sadomasochistic session in the man's dungeon, during which he had cut two young women with a scalpel, leaving permanent scarring. His convictions were quashed because the court of appeal found that the women he cut had consented to the activity.
OK, I'm trying not to judge this incident on the basis that this sort of activity has no appeal for me. What alarms me, though, is that the young women involved were 17 and 15 years old respectively. My first thought was that one of these young women was below the age of consent - and then I realised that, although the participants may have considered this activity sexual, it doesn't fulfill any legal definition of sexual contact. Therefore, the age of consent doesn't apply.
More alarming still, both girls are distressed by the event, with one suffering serious mental health issues subsequently. That doesn't suggest consent to me - or, if there was consent, it was the kind the satisfies the law only. Anyone who's been a scared teenage girl out of her depth knows that 'consent' can be given in fear, or to meet social expectations.
A can of worms is opening here (or perhaps it was always open). How much autonomy should an underage person have to do with his or her body as s/he pleases? At what age can a person give meaningful consent to different sorts of physical activity?
Most of us bring up our kids on a sort of 'sliding scale' of autonomy, letting them call more of the shots about what they do with their bodies as they get older. My daughter is allowed to decide what length she gets her hair cut to. She gets to decide what she'll wear, unless she picks a flouncy summer dress in mid-winter (which she's done more than once). We're negotiating when she can get her ears pierced, but I reserve the right to make her have a bath from time to time.
Kids' bodily autonomy is a giant grey area - we parents bumble about trying to balance our children's rights with our responsibility to protect them. I can live with the idea of fully consenting adults engaging in sadomasochistic activities. I have real doubts whether the law ought to give its blessing to minors making those sorts of decisions about their bodies.