Penal code review: Sexual predators

Protecting minors aged 16 to 18 from sexual exploitation

ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Proposed changes include new categories of sex offences and harsher punishment

Minors will receive more protection against sexual predators with new categories of sex offences and harsher punishment for sexual crimes involving those below 18, under proposals from the Penal Code Review Committee.

A key proposal will protect minors aged between 16 and 18 from being exploited for sex. Currently, there are no provisions for penetrative sexual activity arising from an exploitative relationship for this age range.

The current age of consent for sexual activity is 16, which the committee recommended to retain.

However, it suggested a new offence covering exploitative penetrative sexual activity with minors aged between 16 and 18, as an exploitative relationship could affect the quality of consent.

The committee also made suggestions to tackle the commercial exploitation of minors. A key point was to use the term "child abuse material" instead of "child pornography" to reflect its harms. The term would cover not just sexual abuse, but physical abuse as well.

Other recommendations included new offences to punish the supply chain of child abuse material.

There are currently no specific provisions regarding child pornography, and existing laws, like those under the Films Act, are used to tackle these cases. "The current law was not designed for, and is inadequate to address, the serious problems the rise of the Internet has created for offences such as child pornography," said the committee.

It also proposed fictional child abuse material be covered as it can be used for grooming children and reinforcing abusers' inappropriate feelings. But it recognised that since fictional material does not involve actual children, lower punishments could be prescribed.

Under the recommendations, the bar for sexual grooming offences is also lowered - just one instance of prior contact is needed and it will cover the scenario where a victim travels to meet the offender.

 
 

Another new offence is to criminalise sexual communication with minors, even if the minor does not respond. To protect minors from being shown sexual images by an adult, the committee proposed to make it an offence to engage in sexual activity before a minor or cause the minor to look at a sexual image.

The committee hoped the recommendations would allow the authorities to intervene and punish offenders early, before greater harm is done to the victims.

Commenting on the recommended changes, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said the enhancements would deal effectively with "Joshua Robinson-type" cases which must be severely dealt with. Last year, Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor, was sentenced to four years' jail for a range of offences from sexual penetration of two 15-year-olds to showing an obscene film to a girl, six. Obscene films were also found in his home.

Mr Shanmugam said the review aimed to update the law, change certain definitions and create new offences in this specific field.

The number of alleged cases of child sexual abuse has also been on the rise. Last year, the Ministry of Social and Family Development's Child Protective Service investigated 181 allegations of sexual abuse involving children under 16. This was a 70 per cent jump from the 107 cases investigated in 2016.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said the amendments are timely and provide certainty and clarity.

Family therapist Evonne Lek said the proposed changes showed a stricter stance on child sexual abuse. She added that she hoped the new laws would allow offenders to be flagged earlier so they can receive treatment and therapy.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2018, with the headline 'Protecting minors aged 16 to 18 from sexual exploitation'. Print Edition | Subscribe