Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The age of consent

Tomorrow Radio 4 will host a debate about the age of sexual consent, which is currently 16. Law professsor John Spencer is reported in the Daily Mail as being set to argue that the current age of consent criminalises 'half the population'.

The guidance to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is very clear. The Act is not there to criminalise consensual sexual activity amongst young people, although I accept from many people who know far more about legislation than I do, that this Act is not the best conceptualised and leaves too much room for inequitable legislation. This is borne out in some of the calls and letters that I receive from anxious parents whose child has been the subject of unhelpful criminal investigation into consensual sexual activity.

I look forward to the debate tomorrow, but meanwhile I am with young people and Nick, my trainer at the gym who has in recent months become an active debater on teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, sex and the media, who when I asked him this morning what he thought about lowering the age of consent, thought it was probably best 'left as it is'. Even though he can see there is the potential pressure that people feel when they get to 16 to have sex if they have not done so already.

And herein lies at least some of the problem for me, the feeling amongst the young that everyone else is doing it more often, younger and in more daring ways. But to be honest this is not simply the domain of young people. As adults we too, are often consumed with the view that others are 'having it more and better'. And this is about our culture, not the law (although I know of course the law and culture are closely interlinked).

Research shows the practical reality of the age of consent for young people. In all you need is love? sexual morality through the eyes of young people published by National Children's Bureau, Sharpe and Thomson show that whilst the age of consent is not central in young people's decision making about whether and when to have sex - trust and love playing a much greater role - the age of consent does send a message to young people about when as a society we think is a reasonable age to have sex. I have also talked with many many young women and the professionals that work with them about the age of consent over the last decade. The resounding consensus from them is leave it as it is - it is a good negotiating tool that we can use to refuse to have sex should we want to use it.

So on that basis for now, as long as we have adequate safeguards which prevent young people under 16 who are engaged in consensual sexual activity from being criminalised, and those young people who have sex under 16 have access to contraceptive and sexual health services and feel confident using them, my view is lets keep it at 16. I look forward to the Radio 4 programme Iconoclasts tomorrow and listening to see whether there is anything that may make me consider changing my view.

In the meantime foot on the accelerator to create that positive open culture about sex and sexuality.

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