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01Aug02a Peter Tatchell in The Guardian

Lower the age of consent

Peter Tatchell

The Guardian, August 1, 2001

Britain's sex laws are in a muddle. An age of consent of 16 criminalises more than half the teenage population. This isn't protection; it's persecution. Even one of the top law lords, Lord Millett, believes the time has come to legislate a lower and more realistic age of consent. His proposal has prompted protest from child protection agencies. But what about the right of young people under 16 to make their own decision about when they are ready for a sexual relationship? Sixteen is a totally arbitrary age of consent. It originates from 1885, when consent was raised from 13. There is, however, no medical or psychological evidence that 16 is the age of sexual or emotional maturity. The law says that no person under 16 is capable of giving their consent to a sexual act.

Two 14-year-olds who have a mutually agreed relationship risk maximum penalties ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. A Home Office report published this week confirms that teenagers involved in a loving relationship, where one or both partners are below the age of 16, are being placed on the sex offenders register alongside predatory paedophiles. If a 14-year-old Romeo and 13-year-old Juliet were living in Britain today, they would be branded criminals. Their feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, would not have to worry. They could get rid of Romeo by reporting him to the police and having him jailed.

Although the number of young people under or just over 16 arrested for consenting sex is small, that's no consolation to those who are arrested. Moreover, the current consent law sends out a very dangerous message: that people under 16 have no sexual rights. This is exactly what child abusers believe. It plays into their hands.

Whether we like it or not, 14 is now the average age of first sexual experience (not necessarily intercourse), according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles 1994. Any sexual act involving a person under 16 is a crime, even caressing and fondling by partners of similar ages. An age of consent of 16 therefore criminalises more than half the teenage population. This is an odd way of protecting them.

Consent at 14, for both gay and straight relationships, would be fairer and more realistic. It might also be sensible to introduce a policy of not prosecuting sex involving youngsters under 14, providing they both consent and there is no more than three years difference in their ages. A similar policy already exists in Germany, Israel and Switzerland. This sliding-scale age of consent would take into account the reality that lots of young kids engage in innocent sexual experimentation with each other.

Critics say that 14-year-olds are not mature enough to have a sexual relationship. Some are; others are not. Many are having sex anyway. Maturity is most likely to be ensured by improved sex education. Most young people back a reduction in the consent law. Last November, a poll of 42,000 girls aged 12 to 16 found that 87% think the age of consent of 16 is too high. Four out of five teenagers responding to a similar survey by the British Youth Council a few years ago favoured a lower legal limit. Many of the sexually active under-16s are sexually illiterate because of inadequate sex education. Few receive detailed safer sex advice, and most have no ready access to condoms. The age of consent is often used as a justification for denying them this information and protection.

Critics also say an age of consent of 16 is necessary to safeguard the vulnerable. The consent laws are, however, a wholly inadequate protection. Abusers ignore the law. Even if consent were raised to 25 it would not stamp out abuse. The key to protecting teenagers is education and empowerment. A reduction in the age of consent to 14 must go in tandem with extending sex education to tackle abuse issues. Schools should be required to teach pupils how to deal with sex pests, and to offer sexual assertiveness training so they feel confident to say "no" to people who try to pressure them into having sex.

Canada, Germany, Italy and eight other European countries already have an equal age of consent of 14, which applies either in all or some circumstances. Compared to Britain, most of these countries have fewer teenage pregnancies, abortions and HIV infections. They also have a higher average age of first sexual intercourse. In Britain, even the former Bishop of Glasgow, Derek Rawcliffe has backed 14. Although I rarely find myself agreeing with bishops, in this case he is right: we do not protect young people by threatening them with arrest and imprisonment.

Peter Tatchell is a campaigner on gay and other human rights issues.


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