Like it or not, people under the age of 16 have sex. The current age of consent doesn’t protect them, it persecutes them.
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
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian – Comment is Free – London – 24 September 2009
Law professor John Spencer of Cambridge University has created a huge controversy by suggesting a reduction in the current age of consent of 16. His proposals, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Iconoclasts programme, with my support as a co-advocate, have been savaged by The Sun and the Daily Mail.
Much of the criticism has been sensationalist and has misrepresented the case for a lower age of consent.
Together with Professor Spencer, I believe the time has come for a calm, rational reassessment of the age at which young people should be lawfully entitled to have sex. We need this debate because the current age of consent of 16 ignores reality.
Whether we like it or not, under-age young people are having sex with each other. More than half of all teenagers have their first sexual experience by the age of 14, according to the National Survery of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. All these sexually active young teens are branded by the law as criminals and sex offenders, lumped together with paedophiles. How can this be right?
An age of consent of 14 might be more realistic and reasonable than 16. If sex at 14 is consensual, and no one is hurt or complains, is criminalisation in the public interest? Is it in the 14-year-old’s interest? It is fair?
Having a single, inflexible age of consent is prolematic, since different young people mature at different ages. One alternative option might be to introduce a tiered age of consent, where sex involving under-16s would cease to be prosecuted, providing both partners consent and there is no more than two or three years difference in their ages.
I suspect that many parents will oppose any change. They do not want their children to have sex at an early age. I sympathise with their concerns. But if their children do have sex before the age of 16, surely most loving, responsible parents would not want them to be dragged to court, given a criminal conviction and put on the sex offender’s register, alongside child sex abusers. This is what can, and sometimes does, happen under the present law.
Any review of the consent laws should be premised on five aims. First, ending the criminalisation of consenting relationships. Second, protecting young people against sex abuse. Third, empowering them to make responsible sexual and emotional choices. Fourth, removing the legal obstacles to earlier, more effective sex and relationship education. Fifth, ensuring better contraception and condom provision to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions and to cut the spread of sexual infections like HIV.
The age of consent does not stop young people having sex. It does not stop peer pressure to have sex. It does not stop child sex abuse. It is next to useless. All it does is criminalise tens of thousands of consenting under-age partners. This is not protection; it’s persecution.
If we want to protect young people, and I do, the way to do it is not by threatening them with arrest, but by giving them frank, good quality sex and relationship education. This should start from the first year of primary school onwards, with age-appropriate information about love, emotions, relationships and the physical changes they will experience at puberty.
In secondary school, this information should become more explicit, giving pupils the knowledge, skills and confidence to make wise sexual and emotional decisions. This should include assertiveness training, to help them say no to unwanted sexual advances and to report sex abusers.
Youngsters need to be advised how to negotiate safer sex, deal with sex pests and cope with relationship problems and break ups. They also need to know what to do if their partner refuses to use a condom, and the ABC of sustain fulfilling relationships based on mutual consent and respect.
Compared to the ineffective age of consent, this education and empowerment strategy is a much more effective way to encourage less risky sexual behaviour and to protect young people from peer pressure and paedophiles.
As a general rule, I think it is probably best for young people to delay sex. I would not encourage early sexual relations. However, the issue is not whether the under-16s should have sex, but whether they should be criminalised for victimless sex that causes no harm.
In my view, young people should be able to enjoy sexual relationships without being penalised by the law, providing the sex is consensual and both partners are mature enough to understand the implications of their actions.
There is no scientific or medical evidence that shows that 16 is the magic age at which people become mature enough to have sex. Sixteen is arbitary. So why stick with it?
In 20 European nations, the age of consent is lower than 16. The minimum age (with some qualifications) is 13 in Spain, 15 in France and Poland, and 14 in Germany, Portugal and Italy. There is no evidence that these lower ages of consent result in more teen pregnancies, sexual infections or child abuse.
These countries, most of them staunchly Catholic, would not have low age limits if they thought young people were being put at risk. They realise that the laws against rape and indecent assault provide adequate protection against sexual violence and exploitation.
By restricting young people’s sexual rights, the present age limit of 16 actually makes abuse more likely. It reinforces the idea that young people under 16 do not have the right to control their own bodies. This sexual disempowerment plays into the hands of adults who want to abuse them.
Guilt and shame about sex also increase the likelihood of molestation by encouraging the furtiveness and secrecy on which abuse thrives. One way to protect young people against unwanted sexual advances is by promoting sex-affirmative attitudes which challenge the idea that sex is something sordid, and by empowering teenagers to stand up for their sexual rights. Sexually informed, unabashed and confident youngsters are more likely to resist sexual pressure and manipulation, and more likely to report abusers.
Criminalisation is dangerous because it can inhibit young people from seeking safer sex advice, condoms and the morning after pill. It can also make them afraid to report abusive relationships. They may fear getting into trouble because they have broken the law, so they stay silent.
The age of consent of 16 inhibits some teachers and youth workers from giving explicit sexual information to the under-16s. They fear being prosecuted by the police, or sued by disgruntled parents, for aiding and abetting unlawful sexual acts. This can make them reticent to provide explicit advice to under-age young people.
It is true that sex can sometimes be dangerous and harmful, but not always. At puberty, as hormones kick in, youngsters develop sexual feelings. This is entirely natural and healthy. Some teens, and even young children, innocently and spontaneously explore and experiment at an early age. It most cases this causes them no harm at all.
If there is harm caused, it is usually not as a result of sex per se, but because of emotional abuse within relationships, and unsafe sex that causes infections and makes young girls pregnant when they are not ready for motherhood.
Providing it is safe and with consent, sex is good. It is not dirty, shameful or damaging. It is an immensely pleasurable and profound human bond, which involves intense shared fulfilment and happiness. Consensual sex should not be stigmatised or criminalised, not for young people, not for adults, not for anyone.