More explicit sex education is needed to protect young people against sexual abuse.
The House of Lords will vote soon on whether to ratify last month’s decision by MPs to equalise the age of consent. Influential voices in the Commons and Lords have already expressed concern that an age of consent of 16 for any sexual activity – gay or straight – may put young people at risk of sexual manipulation, either by their peers or those much older.
Most gay rights campaigners have ignored these legitimate worries, dismissing them as homophobically-inspired. This knee-jerk reaction is irresponsible and undermines the credibility of our campaign.
The sexual abuse of teenagers, although relatively small-scale, is a serious problem. It is undeniable that some youngsters – whatever their sexuality – are immature and vulnerable. Society needs to find a way of giving young people sexual rights while, at the same time, protecting them against exploitative relationships.
One response is to say the age of consent should be raised to 18 for everyone. This seems rather repressive and unrealistic, given that nearly half of all teenagers have their first sexual experience before the age 16 – never mind 18! Criminalising much of the youth population is a perverse form of protection.
Joe Ashton MP has suggested a modified version of this proposal. He wants to protect young people under 18 from sexual manipulation by adults in a position of “authority, influence or trust” over them. While many parents will sympathise with his aims, it is doubtful that legislation is the most effective way to deal with abuse by teachers and care workers. Despite already tough laws, adults who prey on young people are, regretfully, not deterred. Even if the age of consent was raised to 25, it would not protect the vulnerable and stamp out exploitation.
What is needed is an entirely different approach to tackling abuse: empowering young people to stand up for their sexual rights, which include both the right to say “yes” to sex and the right to say “no”. Teenagers who are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to control their own bodies are much more likely to resist unwanted sexual advances and report abuse if it occurs.
This approach will only work if society is prepared to teach young people about sex from an early age and discuss with them uncomfortable issues like sex abuse in an up-front, honest way.
That requires earlier, better quality and more effective sex education in schools, starting in primary classes and becoming very explicit at secondary level.
Current sex education is notoriously inadequate. It begins at too late an age, and tends to be vague and euphemistic. Concentrating on the biological facts of reproduction, lessons rarely touch on sex and sexuality, let alone sexual rights or sex abuse.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, most sexual abuse of young people is not violent. It involves pressure and manipulation. Yet few pupils receive assertiveness training in how to deal with sex pests and what to do if they are molested by a parent, neighbour, teacher or fellow student. Telling them to phone Childline is not enough. They need to be taught the ability and assuredness to reject and report undesired sexual overtures.
Adults who sexually exploit teenagers often get away with it because the victims feel guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to complain. This reluctance is reinforced by a straight-laced culture, which still tends to regard sex as something sordid that should be kept hidden and private. These attitudes are a godsend to abusers, who rely on guilt and secrecy to carry out their molestation undetected.
To combat the sexual shame that inhibits the exposure of abusers, sex education lessons need to actively encourage young people to have more open, positive attitudes towards sexual matters. Teenagers who feel comfortable talking about sex are far more likely to unmask abuse.
That leaves the tricky issue of the age of consent. Fixing consent at 16 embodies a curious contradiction. While protecting under-age young people, it also criminalises them. This reinforces the idea that they have no sexual rights. Deemed incapable of consenting to sex, a sexual act involving someone under 16 – even if they consent and both partners are of similar ages – is categorised in law as “indecent assault”.
This denial of sexual choice to the under-16s, and the legal equation of consensual sex with assault, disempowers teenagers. It takes away from them the right to make decisions affecting their own bodies. This plays into the hands of adults who want to abuse them. Abusers don’t respect young people’s sexual rights and, if they are under 16, neither does the law. Perhaps it is time to consider whether an age of consent of 16 is a justifiable restriction on teenagers’ sexual autonomy, and whether it is compatible with promoting the ethos of sexual rights that is necessary to fight abuse effectively.
* Peter Tatchell is a member of the lesbian and gay rights group OutRage!, and the author of the gay sex education manual, “Safer Sexy – The Guide To Gay Sex Safely” (Freedom Editions, £14.99).
An edited version of this article was published as a letter in the Independent, 15 April 1999