Age Of Consent: Is it Time To Lower The Bar?

Sex Education

Isn’t it about time we thought about lowering the Age of Consent to 14?

THERE are depressingly few fields in which Britain claims top spot among our European partners. More depressing still is that one of them is teenage pregnancy. British teenagers have the highest pregnancy rates in the EU. Rates of teenage births are twice those in Germany. Britain also has the highest abortion rates in Western Europe.

A survey carried out in 2000 showed that nearly a third of men and a quarter of women aged 16–19 had heterosexual intercourse before they were 16. Another survey in 2005 showed that more than one-fifth of schoolgirls have had three sexual partners by the age of 14.

To read these figures you would think that the British nation is sex crazed, with teachers and parents hammering home to children the delights of carnal gratification. Yet the reverse is in fact the case. For Britain is famously prudish about sex. The prospect of having ‘the talk’ fills parents with an icy chill. Then you have the toe-curlingly awkward sex-education classes in school, which are little more than an hour long snigger-fest for teenagers who already know more than the poor teacher.

It is also worth noting that until recently the sex education class fell under the purview of the science department. It was treated as a cold, clinical look at the mechanics of reproduction, and barley skimmed the emotional aspects of relationships and consent.

Britain’s attitude to sexuality is wildly out of date. It is stuck in the mindset of a bygone age, and ignores the facts on the ground. The most fundamental flaw in our slavish devotion to the age of consent remaining at 16.

Sixteen is a totally arbitrary age of consent. It originates from 1885. There is, however, no medical or psychological evidence that 16 (as opposed to 14 or any other age) is the age of sexual or emotional maturity. As we have seen, teenagers are having sex long before then.

Sixteen is also relatively high by European standards. British teenage pregnancies are double those of Germany’s. Yet our Teutonic cousins have an age of consent of only fourteen. So the idea that lowering the age of consent would lead to more teenage mothers is a baseless one.

One can’t even make the argument that British youngsters are exposed to more sexual imagery. Public attitudes to sex and nudity are far more relaxed on the continent, and with access to the internet, there’s northing British teens are watching that French or Dutch teens can’t. Much like alcohol, the difference is cultural. Indeed, it’s rather telling that British and American attitudes to nudity are fairly similar, and both the US and UK have a teen birth rate far in excess of their European counterparts.

The principle argument against lowering the age of consent is that it would make more young people vulnerable to the nefarious appetites of sexual predators. However I would argue that the opposite is the case. At the moment, those under 16 have no sexual rights. The State and society have told them that have no right to make a decision about whether or not they are ready for sex. This is exactly what child abusers believe and exactly what they want their victims to believe.

Would it not be better to educate 14 year olds in their rights? Would it not be better to arm 14 year olds with the facts? Would it not be better to empower 14 year olds to become the masters of their own sexual identity? A sexually aware 14 year old that is treated like an adult is far less likely to become a victim than a sexually ignorant 14 year old who is treated like a child.

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 Maturity comes from education and empowerment, not arbitrary numbers

Lowering the age of consent to 14 would not only recognise the reality of today’s Britain, it would also encourage a more open attitude to sex and relationships. Under the current system, two 15 year olds in a sexual relationship are criminals. They are forced to keep their relationship secret. This helps nobody. Secrecy means the parents are unable to provide emotional support, and by having to remain hidden, the teenagers are cutting themselves off from the resources and education available to those just a few months older than they.

The desire to prolong the innocence of childhood is an understandable one from parents. Nobody wants to think of their little angels as sexually active. But the reality is painfully different. By blinkering ourselves to the facts, we are doing our youngsters a great disservice. In order to satisfy our own selfish need of a rose tinted view of our teens, we are depriving them of the support they need. This attitude bleeds into the schools. Too many teachers are reluctant to educate those under 16 about sex for fear of being pounced on by puritanical Daily Mail readers, or parents fearful that their precious offspring are being corrupted.

For decades Britain and the US have buried their heads in the sand over teenage sex. Some would like to think that it simply doesn’t happen. Others want to blame the media and the internet. Others even hoped that teaching abstinence would work. It wasn’t even that long ago that teaching teenagers about touching themselves was considered a step too far. The result has been teenage pregnancies, STDs and education system laughably out of sync with the very people it is supposed to help.

Lowering the age of consent to 14 would reap many benefits. Critically, it would decriminalise a swath of young people who are guilty of nothing more than obeying their anthropological impulses. A better educated bracket of young people would more astute, and able to make well informed choices about sex, greatly improving STD and pregnancy rates. And by allowing more youngsters to become the primary stakeholder in their own sexual identity, we are more effectively protecting them from horrors of sexual predators.

A good starting point would be to introduce a sliding scale of consent. For example sex with a consenting 14 year old would be legal provided the other party is no older than 21. Similar systems work well in places like Germany, Israel and Switzerland. These countries have recognised that different people reach emotional maturity at different ages, and that many youngsters engage in harmless sexual experimentation with each other, such as mutual masturbation or oral sex. The solution is education and loose system of safeguards, rather than blanket criminalisation.

If having the age of consent at 16 is meant to be beneficial to society, it has abjectly failed. The figures speak for themselves. Teenagers are having sex earlier than the law states. We can carry on pretending everything is fine and in doing so condemn another generation to become depressing statistics. Or we can recognise the reality and create a system whereby teenagers, parents and teachers drop the mutual deception and engage in constructive education and discourse.

6 COMMENTS

  1. It should be made a criminal offence to commit any sexual act with or upon on any other person under 18 who is more than three years younger than oneself, or to incite any such person to commit any such act with or upon one or any third party. The maximum sentence should be imprisonment for twice the number of years difference in age, or for life where that difference is more than five years or where the younger party is aged under 12.

  2. I strongly doubt that the legal age for sex has any impact. As you yourself acknowledge, many young people ignore it and have sex when they want to anyway (and they’re not punished for this) which suggests that the legal age of consent has a low causal relationship.

    Moreover, whatever the legal age, kids have access to contraception and advice from a much lower age. Therefore, it has little bearing on the availability of information and methods of practising safe sex on younger individuals who choose to have underage sex.

    What it does do is send out a message – that under 16, you’re probably not old enough to truly understand what you’re doing and the impacts. That’s almost certainly true. For those few kids that it does make a difference to, and for setting a social norm that may alter the behaviour of other young people and encourage them to wait, it helps them end up with a more meaningful “first time”. It’s not just about making it safe – that’s already happening. People actively regret it. We don’t want that for young, impressionable and outright naive kids.

  3. Thanks for your comments Richard. It is very difficult to prove a negative. All we are able to do is to look at how we handle teenage sexuality here, how it is handled abroad, and compare what we can.
    From what I’ve read, I’m inclined to believe that there are benefits to reviewing the age of consent laws.

  4. Whatever the rights and wrongs of your argument, I don’t think you can show a causal link between the age of consent and the problems you highlight. As such, there’s no reason to think changing it would have the benefits you claim.

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