A call to lower the age of consent in the UK has led to a heated debate. Professor John Ashton, head of the Faculty of Public Health has declared that 15 should be the legal age to have sex, and 16 is now too old.
Those who work with the victims of child abuse have reacted angrily and said this would put many more youngsters in danger. The professor disagrees. He says that citing cases like Jimmy Saville, the former DJ, now deceased, who abused countless victims over his long career, is a “red herring.” Challenged on a live radio phone-in he said that Saville was a “psychopath.”
Ashton’s argument is that the existing threshold of 16 is meaningless as it is so often ignored. He has found that many 15-year-olds were in stable romantic relationships and ready to have sex. They are too scared to ask for help and this in turn leads to one of the highest rates for teen pregnancies in Europe.
The professor said that the UK needed “to draw a line in the sand.” so that society can concentrate on actively discouraging sexual involvement under 15. His rationale is that by so doing “you would be able legitimately to organise services to meet the need.”
Reaction has come thick and fast from MPs, lawyers and child advocacy groups. The popular website Netsmums said, “At 15, many children simply aren’t ready for sex mentally or physically.” Siobhan Freeguard, Netsmum founder despaired, “We should be protecting what little time they have left of their childhood – not slashing it shorter.”
Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP who is also a doctor, said the age of consent was there to protect “young people against predatory older men” and her colleague on the other side of the house, Barry Sheerman, Labor MP agreed, “Those who would exploit young people will be very pleased with the learned professor’s recommendation on age of consent.”
The legal firm Slater & Gordon is currently representing 72 of Jimmy Saville’s victims. Lawyer Liz Dux commented, “Predatory adults would be given legitimacy to focus their attentions on even younger teenagers” she also felt there was a risk that “society would be sending out the message that sex between 14 and 15-year-olds is acceptable.” Liz Dux has worked with many who succumbed to the pressure of having sex too young and gone on to live “a lifetime of regret.”
Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg have dismissed the idea, but Clegg acknowledged that Professor Ashton had been right to highlight the concern. His answer is improved sex education in schools which he feels is out-dated. All of these prominent figures disagree that 16 is too old now, and want the age of consent to remain the same.
Official figures strongly suggest at least a third of teenagers have sex before they reach the age of 16. Feelings in so-called “puppy love” relationships are known to be very powerful, and one half of the most famous pair of star-crossed lovers ever, Juliet, was 14 at the time of her tragic romance with Romeo.
The International Child and Youth Care Network say that keeping 16 as the age of consent effectively criminalises over half the teenage population, and is counter-productive as it bars them from obtaining essential advice on disease prevention and contraception as well as emotional support. In 2006, a police chief in Scotland also suggested lowering the age of consent, saying youngsters should not be deemed criminals by following their “youthful natural instincts.” He was widely decried for this suggestion and it was branded a “pedeophile’s charter.”
In actual fact, prosecutions are “very, very rare” according to Simon Blake of sexual health charity, Brook, unless the case has to be proved to be in the public interest. If the under-16s have consented to have sex with one another, this is well-nigh impossible.
Other countries in Europe do have lower ages of consent, and, in line with Professor Ashton’s claims, this has been shown to create a trend where teenagers start serious relationships later and there are lower teenage pregnancy rates.
The lowest age for consent is 13 in Spain, but there are moves to raise it to 16. It is 14 in Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Austria and Germany. For Denmark, Greece, Sweden, Poland and France it is 15. Sharing the threshold of 16 with the UK are the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and Finland.
At the other end of the spectrum, in Turkey and Malta, sex is only legal at 18 and in Tunisia, any unmarried couples have to be 20 before having intercourse without breaking the law. In America it varies state by state, but in a range between 16 and 18. Some states, like Indiana, where it is 16, have additional laws to protect those young people from anyone in a position of authority over them such as teachers.
Back in 1875, the age of consent in the United Kingdom was raised a year from 12 to 13. It was another 10 years before it went up again to its current recommended age of sexual consent, 16 years old.
Canada has a unique approach to the age of consent issue. It was raised to 16 from 14 in 2008, but it still protects young people who want to be in relationships. Thus, even a 12-year-old is not illegally having sex as long as their partner is no more than two years older than them. The system is designed to target the older predators and leave the youngsters alone.
Meanwhile, in a widely welcomed move, Google and Microsoft have today announced that they will block all searches for child abuse images. These new restrictions are going ahead in the UK and will apply across 158 languages over the next six months. 100,000 unambiguous search terms are to be blocked with a further 13,000 leading to a flashing warning and a source to seek help.
Of course, not all teenagers want to have sex, or want to feel pressured into doing so, and Simon Blake of Brook says that keeping the age of consent at 16 helps girls especially who can say “it’s illegal and use that as a negotiation tool.”
Professor Ashton called for a public debate and he has certainly ignited one, as arguments for keeping the age of consent at 16, or lowering it, continue to attract strong reaction on every side. Whether 16 is too old now will continue to be asked.
By Kate Henderson