UN report did not call for decriminalizing sex between adults and minors
CLAIM: A new United Nations report calls for decriminalizing sexual activity between adults and minors.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. A report published in March by the International Commission of Jurists in collaboration with the U.N’s AIDS agency called for enforcing minimum age of consent laws in a non-discriminatory manner. It did not call for decriminalizing all sexual activity between minors and adults, spokespersons for the U.N. and the commission confirmed.
THE FACTS: The claim began with an April 14 blog post titled “UN report calls for decriminalization of all sexual activity, including between adults and children,” which cited specific passages of a document issued by the International Commission of Jurists in March.
The claim quickly circulated across social media platforms, including on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.
“The United Nations issued this report calling on member nations to decriminalize sex between adults and minors,” reads one tweet that was shared more than 7,600 times since Saturday. “Should adults be allowed to convince kids to perform sex acts with them? The UN says yes.”
But the posts misrepresent the document. The report, titled “The 8 March Principles for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Criminal Law Proscribing Conduct Associated with Sex, Reproduction, Drug Use, HIV, Homelessness and Poverty,” is a set of legal principles intended to “guide the application of international human rights law to criminal law,” according to UNAIDS.
“The 8 March Principles do not call for the decriminalization of sex with children, nor do they call for the abolition of a domestically prescribed minimum age of consent to sex,” the International Commission of Jurists said in a statement Thursday. “Indeed, the ICJ stresses that States have a clear obligation under international law to protect children from all forms of abuses, such as child sexual abuse, including through the criminalization of such conduct.”
Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University, concurred that the document is actually a “strong statement in favor of enforcing these laws against sex with minors.”
In the passages being misrepresented, the document calls for enforcing criminal law related to minimum age of consent in a non-discriminatory way, and that enforcement not be “linked to the sex/gender of participants or age of consent to marriage.”
Murphy said that the document isn’t “making a judgment about the precise age of consent a jurisdiction should set.”
“It’s a statement that says: if you set a minimum age of consent, you shouldn’t allow people to evade it by getting married,” she said, noting that some U.S. states don’t have a minimum age for marriage, which can serve as a legal loophole to age of consent laws.
The report goes on to say that sexual activity involving people below a minimum age of consent “may be consensual in fact, if not in law.”
“In this context, the enforcement of criminal law should reflect the rights and capacity of persons under 18 years of age to make decisions about engaging in consensual sexual conduct and their right to be heard in matters concerning them,” the document states.
But this is not suggesting that children can consent to sex with older adults, as the blog post falsely claims. Murphy said that this refers to situations where laws “set a minimum age of consent that don’t necessarily reflect the actual practice of sexual intimacy among young people.”
“If the age of consent in a jurisdiction is set at 18, say, or 17, but in that jurisdiction, you know, it’s not uncommon for high school juniors to have sexually intimate relationships with high school freshmen, then you can run into real opportunities for enforcement bias or just to turn what are really on their face consensual sexual relationships into acts of illegality,” she said.
Likewise, Christine Stegling, UNAIDS deputy executive director for policy, advocacy and knowledge, said in a statement to the AP: “In the application of law, it is recognized that criminal sanctions are not appropriate against adolescents of similar ages for consensual non-exploitative sexual activity.”
Alexander A. Boni-Saenz, a law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, agreed that the document “does not advocate for the decriminalization of sex between adults and children.”
“What it does do is suggest that the law should not be enforced in discriminatory way, for instance, by setting different age of consent based on sex of the participants in the sexual activity or the marital status of those involved,” Boni-Saenz said.
U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric also addressed the false claims at a press briefing on Tuesday, calling them “malicious misreporting on a recent report on the age of legal consent.”
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.