I'll begin by noting that this is a difficult and emotional issue. It might bring up some strong emotions. I recognize that and try to discuss this issue in a humane and sensitive way. (Also, if I have overlooked any major aspects of this discussion, please feel free to leave a comment.)
The age of consent -- specifically, the age at which youth can consent to have sex -- is one of the most common objections to youth liberation.
The objection usually goes something like this: "You say youth should be free and paternalism is bad. And that kids should make all of the same decisions that adults can (aka equal rights). Therefore, you think that kids should be allowed to have consensual sex with adults. If that happens, kids are going to be manipulated and sexually abused by older people. So, the whole youth rights argument isn't valid."
The abuse and manipulation of youth are valid concerns. And I'm not saying that consensual sex between children and adults should be legal. As discussed below, there are reasons to think that it should remain illegal while still being consistent with a youth liberation position.
What I am saying is that the common version of the consent argument against youth rights paints an incomplete picture of the situation. And it misses a bigger point: We live in a society that oppresses youth and has gross power imbalances; these power imbalances throughout society are what we should really be concerned about. These inequalities have serious implications that affect all of our social relations.
Moreover, we live in a society where sexual violence is rampant among people of all ages. But exploitation is wrong at any age. We should be focusing on making sure that all sex is consensual, and promoting healthy relationships generally.
The main point is this: We need to challenge the existing normalization of power and control over children that leads to rampant abuse by family members and other people in positions of power. The oppression of youth exacerbates rape culture throughout society by disrespecting bodily autonomy and by normalizing coercion and power hierarchies from a young age.
So, back to the common objection: "If all youth had equal rights, then young children would be legally allowed to have consensual sex with adults, which would be bad because kids are easily manipulated and would be abused and taken advantage of."
The first thing to do is to reframe the problem. Most people are rightly concerned about the idea of children being taken advantage of and sexually exploited by adults. But most people miss the broader issues at stake.
For example, most people overlook the fact that children are already being taken advantage of and sexually exploited by adults at disturbingly high rates. The vast majority of this abuse is done by family members and/or in the home -- homes which children can't legally leave under most circumstances. And this abuse is often a direct result of the oppressive forces under which youth live.
From an early age, most children are taught that their bodily and personal autonomy doesn't mean much. Most young people have to do what adults in positions of power say in almost every single aspect of their lives, usually without any explanation or reasons. And often youth are punished if they resist or disobey.
Right now, children can legally be hit; they can be forced to stay in their rooms or sit at a desk all day; they can be fondled by their relatives against their will. They can't fight back; they can't leave. There are no real options for kids other than to submit.
So, given these cultural norms, how would a child understand that it's not okay to be sexually touched? How is a child supposed to deny an adult, when the rest of their existence demands obedience?
Another aspect of oppression is that kids are economically dependent on adults. This means that (a) kids couldn't practically leave an abusive situation even if they were legally allowed to, and (b) kids can more easily be coerced and manipulated (for example, the popularized narrative of strangers using candy to trick kids wouldn't be so forceful if kids could buy their own candy).
The result of this dependence and conditioned, forced subservience is that children's oppression contributes to rape culture. Our society denies children any meaningful rights to consent or to stand up to people in power. The law demands children's obedience to adult authority. One of the first lessons many children learn is that might makes right. This is a recipe for disaster.
Children can't be expected to learn how to say "no" to sex if they aren't even allowed to say "no" in so many other aspects of their lives. So it's no wonder that issues of consent and sexual assault plague people of all ages. We are indoctrinated from infancy to believe that our will and preferences are inferior and must give way to the desires of people with relative power. How is a child supposed to know at what point touching crosses the line if the line never involves the child's consent?
Of course, even if young people had more control over their bodies, there would still be huge power imbalances. Some of these imbalances are economic, some of these physical, and some of these come through experience and age. And these imbalances may very well mean that consensual sex between adults and children should remain illegal. But at this point, we can't even imagine what a society free from youth oppression would look like.
Further, non-consensual sex (rape) is always illegal. And if young people had the right to sue, they could actually bring these cases in civil court. As it currently stands, youth rely on the state to prosecute sexual violence.
For all of these reasons, we should be concerned with the existing power imbalance between adults and children. These power asymmetries mean that kids need protection and autonomy. Consent laws could legitimately protect youth from abuse and be consistent with youth liberation by recognizing young people's rights to control their bodies and other aspects of their lives. This position accepts that this is paternalistic, but would argue that it is justifiable. A strictly logical or philosophical approach might reject that conclusion. But the realities of the oppression of children demand a more nuanced approach.
Additionally, it's impossible to say, at this point, how this conversation might proceed if youth were afforded more freedom and participation in our society. For example, if youth could vote, maybe they would support statutory rape and age of consent laws? Maybe they would push to make them even stricter? Maybe they would envision a completely different system for regulating sexual relations and promoting healthy relationships? Who knows? Not adults. And that's exactly the point.
It's difficult to imagine what truly consensual social relations could even look like because we live in a society with such gross power imbalances and disrespect for bodily autonomy. And because we live in a society where the oppression of youth is normalized in so many aspects of life.
Further entrenching this oppression and increasing the power of those adults is not a serious solution. In fact, it just makes the problem worse. At the same time, merely "protecting" youth by gradually denying more and more of their autonomy is not a solution either.
The solution is recognizing children's bodily autonomy and self-determination rights. The solution is giving children respect and legal rights to refuse coercion and control. And the solution involves creating a society where enforced hierarchies of power are not normal. The solution is youth liberation.