Kev's Column: At What Age Should We Consent?

Every week Kevin publishes his very own Kev’s Column online. This week he reacts to the suggestion from Faculty of Public Health president Prof John Ashton that the Age of Consent should be lowered to 15:

Those involved in politics twenty years ago will remember the lengthy debates as the age of consent for Gay Men was equalised with that for heterosexuals.  The original 1967 Act that decriminalised homosexuality had only done so for gay men who were both aged over 21. The age of consent was first reduced to 18, then to 16, as views changed on the appropriate age for consenting to certain types of sexual relationships.

Conversely the last major change to the law around consent for heterosexual couples was in the 19th Century when the age was raised from 13 to 16 as part of the social reforms brought in during the later part of that century. The move was intended to protect younger girls from prostitution and in the same era a minimum age for alcohol purchase was also introduced for the first time.

The suggestion this week to drop the age of consent further is based on the notion that a number of teenagers already engage in sexual relationships under the current permitted age. Yet by the same token many try their first cigarette or alcoholic drink at 15, the fact that some do it is not an argument for the age for purchasing these products to be dropped to allow it.

When the age of homosexual consent was changed by the last Labour Government they made a very sensible alteration to the law in reaction to concerns about older adults potentially preying on teens who are over the age of consent, but not full adults. For the first time it became a specific criminal offence for a person in a position of authority over a 16 or 17 year old to have sex with them, even if the other party fully consented, rather than just being a disciplinary matter.

There have now been a number of prosecutions with teachers of both sexes receiving terms of imprisonment for inappropriate relationships with their pupils. The age of consent acts as a protection for those who are pressured by older adults for sex and ensures that criminal sanctions can be applied by the courts once the relationship is identified. A paedophile cannot argue “they consented” once evidence of sexual activity is presented if the victim is under 16, but if the age of consent was dropped then anyone could lawfully have sex with a 15 year old.

One argument being used to justify a drop in the age is that two 15 year olds engaging in a relationship with each other are committing a criminal offence. Yet this argument is going to be the same whatever age is set. The benchmark of 16 is one that is fair and strikes the balance between personal choice and ensuring a sufficient maturity to decide on what you want to do. There is already a long established “young man’s defence” that covers those of similar age (Up to 24) who honestly, but mistakenly, believe their partner is over 16.

Where the law does raise questions is whether a much older adult, who is likely to be more mature and worldly wise, should be able to lawfully have sex with a 16 year old. Should we expand the current law around those in positions of authority to anyone over 25 in terms of those aged 16 & 17? At 18 an adult is able to choose and it is not the law’s role to determine for them whether their partner is 26, 36 or 46, but someone who is 16 or 17 is still dependent on others so may be more vulnerable or feel less able to choose. It’s something I am happy to debate.

 

Relationships always have a large amount of grey and you cannot easily define love or maturity in the codes of law. Yet it is right that the Criminal Law sets a benchmark for society and in this case it is right to say the mark is at 16 and sex with those aged below it should be not a case of morals, but of criminal behaviour.