The Number 10 Policy Unit recently proposed a reduction in the age of consent to 14. It was dismissed by David Cameron. Peter Tatchell and Jules Hillier of Brook, the youth advice centre, discussed the proposal on BBC Woman’s Hour. Both opposed the criminalisation of consenting relations between under-16s of similar ages. Peter Tatchell sets out reasons why consideration should be given to reducing the age of consent – providing it is accompanied by earlier, better quality sex and relationship education:
In the UK, the average age of first sexual experience is 14, according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles – the largest and most comprehensive sex survey ever conducted.
This means that more than half of all teenagers – straight and LGBT – are criminalised. They risk being sentenced to five years in a youth detention centre and being placed on the sex offenders register – even if they consent and even if they are involved with someone of a similar age. This is the law, as set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
The current age of consent of 16 means that many parents, teachers and youth workers feel inhibited about providing under-16s with explicit sex education, contraception and condoms.
Likewise, some under-age young people are hesitant about seeking sexual health support. Those who have had unsafe sex, are pregnant or who have symptoms of a sexual infection may be nervous about coming forward to get help if they are under 16.
Other under-age youngsters may be afraid to report violent and sexually abusive relationships. They fear getting into trouble because they have broken the law.
Reducing the age of consent to 14 for opposite-sex and same-sex relationships would remedy these problems, at least for those aged 14 and older.
As well as bringing the law closer into line with the reality of young people’s sexual lives, it would also lessen the legal obstacles to earlier, upfront sex and relationship education and make 14-16 year olds less reluctant about securing advice, support and treatment.
One option would be to keep the age of consent at 16, but decriminalise sex involving youths aged 14-16, providing both partners consent and there is no more than two or three years difference in their ages.
This would, for example, end the criminalisation of two 15 year olds, while continuing to prohibit sex between 15-year-olds and 50-year-olds.
Even then, I would favour a reduction to 14 only if it was backed up with assertiveness training and earlier, better quality sex and relationship education in schools, to help young people make wise, responsible sexual decisions, including the choice to not have sex.
Such measures are likely to have the knock-on effect of helping cut the rate of teenage pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
I don’t advocate that young people have sex before the age of 16. It is best if they wait. But if they do have sex before they are 16 they should not be criminalised. Criminalisation is not protection.
Adults should never have sex with children. Abuse is always wrong. This is a legitimate concern.
However, the law is scant protection. Abusers ignore the law. We currently have an age of consent of 16, yet it is routinely flouted by sex abusers. It doesn’t protect youth. Retaining the existing age of consent would do little to stop those who abuse young people.
Sexual guilt and shame increase the likelihood of molestation by encouraging the furtiveness and secrecy on which abuse thrives. A sex-negative mentality sees sex as something bad that should be kept out of sight. This plays into the hands of abusers. They need shame and silence in order to get away with their crimes.
One way to protect young people against unwanted advances and exploitation is by promoting sex-affirmative attitudes that challenge the idea that sex is sordid and should be kept hidden. Sexually unashamed young people are likely to be less inhibited about reporting abusers.
Another way to protect young people against abuse – perhaps the best way of all – is by schools teaching assertiveness training to empower them with the skills and confidence to say no to unwanted sex and to report abusers.
The sexual rights, health, welfare and protection of young people is a human rights issue.
Peter Tatchell is director of the London-based human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign.
The views in this article are his own and not those of PinkNews.co.uk