James Evans argues that encouraging parental responsibility is better than lowering the age of consent.
In Terry Goodkind’s fantasy novel, The Stone of Tears, hero Richard Rahl learns the “Wizard’s Second Rule”: namely that the greatest harm can result from the best of intentions. In politics as in fantasy fiction, the ‘law of unintended consequences’ plays a crucial role in the determining which choices will be successful. Ministers always have to be mindful that changing laws will have a ‘ripple effect’, influencing and changing people’s behaviours, rather than simply imposing a mechanical change on an otherwise unaltered situation.
In politics as in fantasy fiction, the ‘law of unintended consequences’ plays a crucial role in the determining which choices will be successful.
A good example of this problem is in relation to the United Kingdom’s tax system. Historically, raising the tax rate paid by the rich has not necessarily generated more money. In fact, it creates an incentive for people and businesses to base themselves abroad, makes it worthwhile for individuals to pay third-party advisers to help minimise their tax bill, encourages people not to declare their true income, and leaves people with less capital to invest, thereby harming profits. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher lowered tax rates, but the rich ended up paying the government more.
The weekend’s newspaper headlines focused upon Professor John Ashton’s call for the age of sexual consent to be lowered to 15. It seems that the professor is arguing that youngsters who become sexually active at 15 would then receive proper advice on contraception and would be less frightened about coming forward about difficulties with their relationships. He reputedly believes that this would draw a ‘line in the sand’ against sex at 14 or even younger.
The Prime Minister has rejected this suggestion, for now at least. Whilst Ashton may be right to open the debate, the law of unintended consequences could work either way – with fifteen-year-olds possibly being considered ‘fair game’ by exploitative adults if the age of consent were lowered, and younger people seeing the changing government stance as an endorsement for sexual experimentation before the point where any meaningful adult responsibilities are assumed. Sex education for young teenagers has taken place in schools for many years in schools. Apparently it hasn’t stopped up to a third of teenagers having sex before they are sixteen; perhaps that would become a third before fifteen if the age of consent were lowered!
Sex education for young teenagers has taken place in schools for many years in schools. Apparently it hasn’t stopped up to a third of teenagers having sex before they are sixteen.
Playing around with the age of consent does not address the fundamental problems which Ashton seeks to address: many children are not taught to be responsible about sex by their parents and some are encouraged to be irresponsible by an enticing counter-culture of laissez-faire sexual irresponsibility. In 2009, the Sun broke the story of the ‘youngest dad’: Alfie Patten, aged 13. Alfie’s paternity was later disproven; but the thrust of the story and the reality of young teenage sex, pregnancy, parenthood, and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, are rightly a concern to politicians and health experts alike. My plea to David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove is not to risk breaking the Wizard’s Second Rule, but instead to enlist parents’ help to deglamourise and demystify under-age sex.