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Sex is not just for grown-ups

Miranda Sawyer, The Observer, November 2, 2003

The age of consent has been set at 16 for the past century. Now, the Government wants to tighten the law. In this provocative and personal argument Miranda Sawyer says the Home Office is wrong: it would be better for everyone if we lowered the age to 12

Teenagers, eh? Clogging up the buses, jacking mobile phones, laughing at your shoes, frightening the world as they flip between aggression and affection like Sunny Delightful psycho killers. If they're not screeching, they're talking in grunts, or moaning, or bullying each other, or running away together to hang out in the dance section of Milton Keynes record shops.

Why do they have to be so adolescent? Let's ban them. Except: they're great, aren't they? Teenagers are our society's lifeblood. We steal their styles in music, clothes, celebrity gossip, communication (texting and online chat rooms were driven initially by teenagers). We love their idols: Justin, Christina, Eminem. We copy them. Middle-aged men ride skateboards, carry rucksacks, fancy Britney. Females from five to 40 dress to look like a flat-stomached, short-skirted, Top Shopped 15-year-old.

We watch teenagers - we watch over them, we watch out for them, we see a gang of them outside the precinct and we call the police - but our love-hate relationship with them means that we ignore who they really are. Despite its seeming visibility, the real teenage world is closed to outsiders. Adolescents have private lives, with hidden friends, language, judgments and desires. Being a teenager is about finding your own way, among your peers, within an outside world that both desires and despises you, protects and envies you, and censures the way you are.

Remember? No matter how old you are, you can remember being a teenager. It's not often that you will, of course. Your hair was crap. Your skin was worse. You fell over in front of that girl you wanted to impress. Your best mate was prettier than you, and you had to pretend not to notice when she snogged her boyfriend, leaving you to make stilted conversation with his mate because you didn't want to get off with him. Remember?

If you do, and you're honest, you'll be surprised how many of your teenage memories involve sex. Even if you didn't recognise it then, the fire in your stomach, the howl in your head, the ache in your heart, were all caused by longing. By lust. Not just lust for sex, of course - teenagers have to deal with friendship, family, freedom, schoolwork, social life, stress - but sex was a vital part of your life. Even those deemed late developers, those who weren't sexually active until older, know that sex is a potent teenage force. Harry Enfield's sketch about Kevin the Teenager becoming reasonable the moment he lost his virginity has its roots in truth.

When I was young, I went to parties where the room for coats was full of writhing couples by 8.30pm. My friends and I talked about hand-jobs and blow-jobs, feeling up and fingering, even before we'd tried anything of the sort. We manoeuvred each other into sexual situations. At 13, I went to the cinema with a boy I'd grown up with. He brought his friend, who suddenly clamped his arm round my shoulder and groped for my flat breast, though we'd barely spoken. I just leant forward so he couldn't reach and sat like that for the rest of the film.

That, of course, was nothing. From 12 onwards, my friends and I played spin-the-bottle, we timed each other snogging at parties, we swapped partners, we shared beds - or, more often, bus shelters - we reported back on getting off with each other. He moves his head around too much when he kisses, she holds your dick too tight, he puts his hand up your skirt before touching your tits (wrong order, the weirdo).

From our early teens, if couples went out with each other for more than a few weeks, things would get hotter, heavier... though not always progressing to full sex, partly due to circumstance. We lived with our parents. We could fiddle with each other in our rooms if we were allowed up there to 'listen to records'. It was that, or grappling on a park bench. When someone's parents went away, we would descend on the vacant house, and the couples would move quickly to the bedrooms or the shower. There was always some panic about the sheets. Though some were shagging young, by the time most of us moved on to penetration, we had spent more time than Sting on foreplay.

I was a teenager in the Eighties: aren't British kids far more sexually speedy these days? In fact, the most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles shows that about a quarter of British girls and a third of boys have had full sex by the age of 16. Maybe you think that's a lot, maybe you think that's not many. The fact is, they're doing it.

For the past few months, I've been making a TV programme about the age of consent, and talking to teenagers about sex. Some drip with sexual braggadocio, while some don't want to talk about it; some lie, though most don't. There is still a depressing gender divide between girls and boys: when a girl has lost her virginity, she's likely to keep it quiet; when a boy loses his, he shouts about it (unless it's against his religion). A boy who has sex is deemed a player, a girl who has sex is a sket (a slag).

Kyle, a perfectly turned out, 16-year-old charmer, lost his virginity at 12, 'to an older woman'. She was 14. 'She was in control, man,' he laughs. 'She used handcuffs and everything.'

(This isn't uncommon. I remember a girl who specialised in taking young boys' virginity. She would arrange a time and venue, then turn up, dressed in a mac and saucy underwear, and proceed to remove, almost clinically, the grateful lad's cherry.)

Anyhow, since Kyle's first experience of sex, he has had about 12 partners -

'I flexed it in a train toilet once!' - most of whom were one-night stands. He is unembarrassed about this. 'Teenage sex is more fun, more casual,' he says. 'It's about experimenting; everyone wants to experiment. As long as you keep your self-respect.'

Laura lost her virginity at 13, unhappily. She sought advice, from a Brook Advisory Centre, and finished with her boyfriend. Still, a year later, after dating other boys, she felt ready for her next sexual partner. He was 21. At 15, Laura became pregnant. She had never thought about the age of consent before: suddenly, she panicked. She thought her boyfriend might go to jail.

Then there's Penny, who is 13 but, with make-up, looks two years older. For a while, she was seeing an older boy, though she dismisses him now as 'a knobhead'. She is still a virgin, although some of her friends have had sex. When she is out with her mates, she is expressive, calling 'love you' to those she cares about, and 'fuck you', quick as a whip, to a girl she thinks is taking the piss. Penny isn't bothered about who's had sex and who hasn't; she says she will make her own decision about her virginity.

'I will lose it when I'm ready, when I can rely on the boy I'm going out with. I'm not going to wait until I'm married. I'm gonna do it with someone who I think likes me and I like them enough.'

As Kyle says:

'There's making love and there's having sex. Teenage sex is not the same as a married relationship.'

No, it's not: because teenage sex under 16 is illegal. The British age of consent is 16. We all know that. No penetration before you're 16, whether you're gay or straight.

But it's not as clear as many think. For one, the age of consent in Northern Ireland is 17. And for another, there is no age of consent for straight sex for boys. In England, Wales and Scotland, it is illegal to have sex with a girl under 16. It is illegal to have gay sex with a boy under 16. But it is not illegal to have straight sex with a boy under 16. So, if two 15-year-olds, a girl and a boy, sleep together, only the boy is committing a crime.

If an older woman has sex with a boy under 16 and is prosecuted, she will be charged with unlawful sexual assault, not breaking the age of consent. When an older man has sex with a girl between 13 and 16, he will usually be done for unlawful sexual assault, if not rape, since both carry heavier penalties than sex with an underage girl. If the sex is deemed worthy of legal action, then tougher laws are usually used.

Here is another factor: if the man is under 24 and can prove that he thought that the girl was 16 - maybe she looked older, maybe she told him she was - then he has a legal defence. But if she is under 13, in which case the offence is absolute - and the maximum punishment life imprisonment - that defence doesn't apply.

Confused? Not as much as teenagers are. Studying the various surveys, most teenagers, when asked, say that the age of consent is 16. But asked whether that's the right age, their answers become mixed. Some say there should be no age of consent at all. Some say it should be higher (18), or lower (12). Many believe that the age of consent is set at 16 because that's the 'average' age for first sex.

In fact, the age of consent was set at 16 in a bid to stop Victorian child prostitution. In 1885, a journalist, William Stead, wrote a campaigning article describing how he had managed to procure a girl of 11. The resulting outcry added weight to a campaign headed by social reformer Josephine Butler and led to the age of consent being raised to 16. Previously, in 1875, it was set at 13; before that, it was 12, deriving from the 1275 Statutes of Westminster.

These days, of course, we have separate laws to deal with child prostitution, yet the age of consent for girls remains 16. It hasn't changed in more than 100 years. Now, however, the Government is quietly preparing to tighten the law. The Sexual Offences Bill passing through the House of Commons proposes to make sex with boys under 16 illegal. More, it will make all forms of sex - not just penetration - illegal for under-16s. That includes everything from snogging to fondling to rubbing the crotch of his jeans or putting your hand inside her bra, through to what swimming pools used to define as heavy petting. The lot. Bases one through 10. Illegal.

For those who can be bothered to remember their teenage years, this seems laughably unrealistic. The Bill will criminalise hundreds of thousands of young people for normal, natural behaviour. It takes no account of teenagers' real lives and ignores people's sexual development. We don't all flick our sexual switch to 'on' at 16; zoom from 0-60 on our sixteenth birthday. According to experts such as John Coleman, of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, we have sexual feelings from a very young age.

'Many adults think that sexuality really starts with puberty,' he says, 'but it doesn't. Children are sexual from the very beginning.'

In fact, by age two, most babies are playing with their genitals. We explore our own bodies - and, sometimes, those of others - throughout our childhood and into our adolescence.

'We can't say at any one age that a child becomes sexual.'

Some people mature early, some late; and not just physically, but emotionally, too. Maybe they have the body of a fully grown adult, but their mind is still childish. That's why surveys among teenagers on the subject of sex are invariably confused. Some are ready for bed; others are just ready for bed.

There has been little mention in the media of the proposed changes to the age of consent - Natasha Walter wrote on the subject in the Guardian recently; John Humphrys briefly grilled a junior Home Office Minister, Paul Goggins, on the Today programme in August. This despite the fact that other aspects of the Bill have been highlighted: there was a furore about the clause banning sex in back gardens earlier in the year, and sex and the internet has had a lot of attention. But about the age of consent: nothing.

Our last Sexual Offences Act became law in 1956. Clearly, we need a new one. We could hardly be expected to legislate for the computer age in the Fifties, and society's recent concern over paedophilia requires tougher laws to stop grooming and other pederast activity. There can't be many who disagree with any of that. But, to me, at least, it seems wrong to criminalise teenagers for consensual sexual experimentation, for doing what comes naturally, for doing what we did at their age. If they are prosecuted under this law, they could be sent to a youth offenders' institute or prison for up to five years, and have their names placed put on the sex offenders' register.

The Government argues for the new clauses on several counts. First, it denies that it is actually altering the law. This claim is dismissed by the House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, which reported on the proposed clauses in January 2003. Second, the Government says the law won't be much used. Guidelines will be issued to prosecutors so that they don't bring the law to bear on what Goggins, when I interviewed him, described as 'the more innocent kind of behaviour'. I presumed he meant that teenagers wouldn't be hauled up in court for consensual kissing and cuddling, and said so. But, instead, he went on to say 'some sexual behaviour which may be consensual may also be harmful for children'. He didn't elaborate. So perhaps prosecutors' judgment will be more far-reaching than we imagine.

Sex is tricky. Legislating around sex is even trickier. There has been a lot of negotiation around the age-of-consent clauses. The Government's original proposal would have stopped agony aunts from giving advice to teenagers under 16. This was dropped after lobbying. But, because of the delicacy of the discussions, many public bodies set up to help teenagers negotiate their sexual lives are refusing to go on the record with their opinion of the Bill. They can't be seen to oppose the Government when the Government pays their wages.

There are individuals who will, however. Sara Swann, a child protection expert, who was consulted in the drafting of the Bill, is worried about the way it has turned out. She knows that fear of getting into trouble is a major barrier to teenagers seeking support.

'It's a muddle,' she says. 'If a 14-year-old who's been sexually active is raped, how are they going to tell somebody what's happened to them - if they feel they're a criminal in the first place? We're going to send things further underground, and we're going to stop young people getting the help they need to make informed decisions about their own bodies and their own sexual experiences.'

Teenagers' sex lives are affected by the law. Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. The figure may have fallen since the Seventies (about 8 per cent of 15-19 year olds in 1970; about 6 per cent in 2001), but the rest of Europe is reducing the number of teenage pregnancies more quickly. We were doing well, but there was a blip in the downward trend in the mid-Eighties, after Victoria Gillick won and then lost her attempt to stop doctors prescribing contraception to under-16s without parental consent. As a result of her court action, many teenagers believed that services that provided contraception would no longer be confidential. Then, in 1995, there was a health scare surrounding the third generation pill: in 1996, teenage conception rates rose significantly.

Clearly, the best way to stop young pregnancies would be for teenagers not to have sex. The second best way would be for them to have safe sex, using effective contraception. Here, the age of consent can be a hindrance, even before the new Bill. Talking to teenagers, I realised that for many the age of consent is rarely an issue until after they have had sex. Maybe he wants to get some condoms, but isn't sure if he's allowed. Maybe she feels pressured into having sex and wants to talk to someone, but her friends assume sex is great - and she can't tell her mum and dad. Maybe she becomes pregnant, and he's older: will he be prosecuted?

A teacher told me of an occasion when an underage girl fell pregnant and asked her for help. But the teacher couldn't take the girl to a clinic, because she was underage. The girl didn't feel able to tell her parents, so she dithered: until it was too late and she had to keep the baby. Another great British statistic.

The stark truth is this. Though the age of consent can frighten teenagers into not seeking help when they need it, it doesn't stop them having sex. Cross-European comparisons of sexual health, carried out by Rox Kane and Kaye Wellings at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, show that the age of consent has no bearing on the age of first sex. 

In Spain, the age of consent is set low, at 13: yet the average age of first sex for girls is 19 and for boys, 18. 

In Mali, the age of consent is 16, but most young people wait until a year later. 

In California, the age of consent is 18, but most have sex between 16 and 17. 

The age of consent in France, Sweden and Denmark is 15. 

In Italy and Canada, it is 14. 

In Japan, 13. 

In Chile, it's 12. 

In Portugal and the Netherlands, teenagers between 12 and 16 can have consensual sex with their peers (often called age-gap legislation), otherwise the age of consent is 16.

If we want teenagers to delay their first sexual experience until they are ready, so that they're not forced into it, so that they won't get pregnant, so that they'll enjoy it safely and, vitally, won't regret it - then the age of consent is no help at all. What does work is sex education.

John Coleman reports: 

'In societies in which there's more sex education, more openness, there's a far lower rate of teenage pregnancy. And there's clear evidence that in families where it is possible and easy to talk about sex, children delay their first sexual relationships. Parents always fear that talking about childhood sexuality will lead to children experimenting earlier. But all the evidence shows that the more you talk to young people about sex, the more sensible they are, and the more willing they are to delay.'

So do you talk to your teenagers about sex? If not, does their school? In all surveys, teenagers say that they want more sex education. Yet the Government is seeking to tighten the laws involving the age of consent, which will lead to a less open approach to teenage sexuality. Shouldn't we at least be talking about this lack of talking?

Personally, I would scrap the Government's new age of consent laws. Instead, I would adopt a three-step approach. 

One, improve sex education. We need to empower teenagers so that they are equipped to deal with the complicated situations that sex can bring. 

Two, tighten laws against paedophilia. 

And, three, lower the age of consent to 12. 

Actually, I'd be open to an age-gap system such as exists in the Netherlands and Portugal, though I don't say this in the TV programme, as it would criminalise Laura's ex-boyfriend. Certainly, it's worthy of discussion. But, either way, I would still lower the age of consent to 12. Not because I think that teenagers should be having sex at 12, but because I think they should be delaying it until they are ready.

Twelve is an indicator, a marker between the ages of childhood and adolescence, not an average age of first sex, not the best of a bad job. Teenagers will continue to have sex when they want to, regardless of the law. What we have to do is educate them so that they don't do so until they're fully prepared. They, and we, need to talk about sex openly and without fear of prosecution. We should help them to celebrate themselves, to understand their own needs and desires. They have a right to make their own decisions about their own bodies. They have a right to enjoy sexual experimentation, if that's what they really want. But until they are ready for the jump into adulthood, into full sex, with all its emotional and physical consequences, we shouldn't ban teenagers.

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