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Call to reduce the age of consent to 14 

Kevin Schofield, The Scotsman, Sat 17 Feb 2007

The controversy over the legal age of consent has been re- ignited after a Scots academic called for it to be lowered to 14.

Dr Matthew Waites, a lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University, said lowering the age limit from 16 to 14 for young people who are less than two years apart would recognise the fact that many teenagers regard sex as "normal behaviour".

His comments were described as "madness" by a family charity, but one of Scotland's leading child-protection bodies said under-16s who engage in consensual sex should not be criminalised.

Norman Wells, the director of the Family Education Trust, said: 

"To suggest that teenagers are at the mercy of their hormones demonstrates a failure to respect them as rational people."

But Maggie Mellon, the director of Children 1st, said that while she was opposed to lowering the current age limit, common sense should be used when enforcing the law.

"We support the current legislation as it underlines that sexual activity involves emotional as well as physical maturity," she said. 
"It also protects young people under the age of 16 from exploitation by adults. "We do not, however, believe in criminalising young people who engage in consensual sexual contact with a partner of a similar age and maturity. These young people should not automatically face criminal charges or be put on the Sexual Offenders' Register. While we do not support a lowering of the age of consent, we would like every case involving people under 16 to be looked at carefully on its own merits."

Dr Waites has written a book, The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship, based on a worldwide survey of age of consent laws, which can vary from 12 to 21. He said the number of young people under 16 who were having sex was going up, which proved that the current laws were ineffective.

"The law stigmatises much of what many teenagers regard as normal behaviour and fosters a climate of denial among parents and some professionals which prevents some teenagers from seeking information and assistance," Dr Waites said. 
"The minimum age for sexual activity should be lowered to 14 but supplemented by an 'age span' provision where people aged 14 and 15 would only be able to have sexual activity with a person less than two years older, until 16."

Dr Waites' comments are particularly controversial given the UK's appalling record for teenage pregnancies. A damning report by the United Nations last week found that Britain was ranked worse than average in rates of teenage pregnancy. The report also placed the UK bottom of 17 nations for the number of 15-year-olds who reported having had sex.

However, organisations such as the International Child and Youth Care Network say that an age of consent of 16 criminalises more than half of the teenage population. 

Maggie Mellon said governments also had a responsibility to help prepare young people for sexual relationships.

"We want to see a lot more advice and information given to young people so that they are physically and emotionally ready to embark on healthy sexual relationships," she said.

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