Sex rights for the under-16s

Young people under 16 have sexual rights too.


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

Child abuse professionals, politicians, Christian fundamentalists and right-wing feminists are waging war on young people, enforcing sexual ignorance and guilt. Any attempt to portray sex in a positive light to school pupils is condemned as scandalous. These bigots scare-monger about sex, suggesting one-sidedly that it is a wicked danger and a corrupting influence that destroys childhood “innocence”.

Those who advocate making sex education more explicit and detailed – to give young people under 16 the facts they need to have happy, healthy relationships – are denounced by the anti-sex brigade as “perverters of youth”. The resulting sexual illiteracy and shame means that many people below the age of 16 are too ill-informed and guilt-ridden to know how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection and sex abuse.

Denying the under-16s the legal right to be sexual, these moralists treat teenagers who choose to have sex prior to the age of consent as criminals. Blurring the differences between consensual and non-consensual sex, they insultingly categorise all under-age sex – even when it is consenting and between young people of similar ages – as child abuse. Their prime concern is not the welfare of young people, but the imposition of their own puritan dogma.

When confronted by genuine sexual abuse, the sex-haters do not help young people overcome the trauma, but instead reinforce it by branding them as “scarred for life”. This only serves to make things worse, exacerbating the victim’s distress and aggravating the psychological damage.

Equalising the age of consent at 16 won’t solve these problems. Sexually-active young people under 16 – both gay and straight – will still be branded as either “victims” or “criminals”, even if their relationships are fully consensual.

Isn’t it time the lesbian and gay community said, loud and clear, that the under-16s also have sexual rights? Don’t we have a responsibility to defend the right of under-age queers to make their own free, informed choices about when they are ready for sex?

The best way to protect teenagers against abusive relationships is by educating them about sex and by challenging the idea that sex is something sordid that should be kept hidden. We should be empowering young people to stand up for their sexual rights – including the right to say “yes” to sex and the right to say “no”. Sexually informed and confident teenagers are more likely to resist sexual exploitation – and to report abuse if it occurs – than those who are sexually ignorant, ashamed and guilt-ridden.

Metropolis, 3 June 1998.

See also “Recognise your age”, Tribune, 13 December 1996