Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has reiterated his calls to lower the age of consent for both straight and gay people.

He appeared on a live Radio 4 discussion last night alongside Cambridge lawyer Professor John Spencer, Sarah Nelson, researcher in child sexual abuse at Edinburgh University and Dr Trevor Stammers, a GP and lecturer in medical ethics.

Prof Spencer argued that the Sexual Offences Act 2003 criminalises not only adults who have consensual sex with children but also children who engage in consenting sexual acts with each other.

He added that in theory, kissing or petting between 14 or 15-year-olds is punishable with five years in prison and “erotic play” between ten-year-olds is theoretically punishable with between 14 years in prison and life.

Nelson argued that the law offered protection to children, especially girls, who were not ready to have sex. She also raised concerns that this could lead to exploitation and pointed out that those under 18 are banned from smoking.

Tatchell said the age of consent is a human rights issue and argued that each case should be judged on its individual merits.

He said: “My personal advice to young people would be to delay sexual experience. But the fact is that half of the young people in this country are having sexual experiences from around the age of 14 or even a bit earlier. My concern is that they are not treated as criminals.

He added that this could prevent children reporting abuse or accessing health care and said the current law was a “complete failure”.

Instead, Tatchell proposed better sexual education, such as how to report abusers and how to ensure partners use contraception.

Stammers argued that sex at a young age can lead to an increased risk of cervical cancer for girls and added that children cannot cope with the emotional fall-out from sex.

To listen to the show, click here