Age of Consent bill flawed

The bill equalising the age of consent is repressive, draconian and undermines basic human rights.


Note: My articles urging an age of consent of 14 are motivated solely by a desire to reduce the criminalisation of under-16s who have consenting relationships with other young people of similar ages.I do not support adults having sex with children.
I do not advocate teenagers having sex before the age of 16.

But if they do have sex before their 16th birthday, they should not be arrested, given a criminal record and put on the sex offenders register.

Perhaps the ideal solution would be that the age of consent remains at 16 but that sexual behaviour involving young people under 16 should not be criminalised, providing there is informed consent, no one is harmed and there is no more than two or three years difference in their ages. This would end the criminalisation of similar-aged young people, while protecting the under-16s against sexual abuse by those much older. I hope this reassures you – Peter Tatchell

Why is the lesbian and gay community backing an age of consent Bill that criminalises consenting sex and continues to brand gay men as child sex abusers?

Is our desire for an equal age of consent so desperate that we are prepared to support, without a squeak of dissent, the grotesque injustices embodied in this legislation? How can queers so readily and shamelessly sacrifice the human rights of others in order to win equality for themselves?

Almost every gay rights group in the country is united and unanimous in backing the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, which includes a clause equalising the age of consent at 16. Wonderful!

But what about the other key clause of the Bill? The bit about “abuse of trust”? While the intention may be fine, the reality is not. This clause, which is justified on the grounds of protecting children, would not be out of place in a totalitarian dictatorship.

Under the “abuse of trust” clause, consenting sexual relations are illegal if they take place between a person under 18 and an adult in a position of authority over them. The adult can be punished with up to five years jail. In other words, teachers, social workers, nurses, prison officers, youth counsellors and others caring for young people will be committing a serious criminal offence if they have a consensual relationship with a person under 18 in their care.

While we all want to protect young people against abuse, this is not the way to go about it. The abuse of trust legislation is a step too far. It strays from protection to persecution.

If we take the example of sex between teachers and pupils: clearly it is nearly always inappropriate and sometimes it can involve manipulation, exploitation and even outright abuse. That is wrong. But when a teacher-pupil affair takes place with the freely informed consent of both partners, it should be punished (if at all) as a disciplinary offence under the teacher’s professional code of conduct, not by imprisonment.

The main teaching unions agree. They also oppose the criminalisation of consensual sex. There is no justification for punishing teachers with up to five years jail for a consenting relationship that may, some cases, have evolved entirely spontaneously and be based on sincere love and commitment.

Not all such relationships are necessarily predatory or exploitative. In the case of a young, recently graduated teacher and a 17 year old pupil, there may be only a few years difference in their ages. The relationship could have developed entirely naturally, without any manipulation or abuse, as relationships often do in workplace situations. Haven’t we all, at some time, had feelings for a person we have met in the course of our jobs?


As if the draconian abuse of trust clause was not bad enough, the government has refused to amend the age of consent Bill to remove from the Sex Offenders Register (once the law is equalised) men convicted of consensual gay sex with 16 and 17 year olds.

Although the offence for which they were convicted will cease to exist when the law is made equal, the Home Office Minister, Charles Clarke MP, has said that men already found guilty of consenting gay sex with 16 and 17 year olds must remain on the Register – even after the law is changed!

Being on the Register requires these men to inform the police of any change of address, bans them from living or working near children, and allows the police to inform their neighbours that they are a known sex offender (thus rendering them liable to vigilante attack). Clarke made this admission a letter to Brian Iddon MP, dated 2nd February 2000.

The homophobic bias and injustice of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 is plain for all to see. Under this Act, a man aged 20 who has a consensual gay relationship with a 17 year old is branded a pædophile and is required to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register. No such penalty applies to equivalent heterosexual behaviour. Sex between men and women in the same circumstances is not even an offence.

Why is it that, apart from OutRage!, and one or two other individuals, there has been not even a murmur of disapproval in response to these nasty, repressive elements of the age of consent Bill? How come the lesbian and gay community is closing its eyes to injustice?