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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Sex Debate: Will Lowering the Age of Consent Help or Hurt Young People?

Sex Debate: Will Lowering the Age of Consent Help or Hurt Young People?

| On 20, Nov 2013

This week, the media in the UK was inflamed by a proposal by a leading health professional that the age of consent should be reduced from 16 to 15. Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, suggested that since around a third of 14 and 15 year olds have sex, we should open up the debate to gauge public opinion on whether the age of consent needs adjusting to fit teens’ actual behaviour.

According to Professor Ashton, reducing the age of consent would allow 15 year olds to have better access to sexual health services and advice. Statistics from other European countries, including France, Germany, Greece and Denmark, would seem to support this idea – they all have lower ages of consent, yet rates of teenage pregnancy are much lower than that of the UK. Professor Ashton called for “open discussions in a sensible environment” to “get a sense of public opinion about this.”

However all three major political parties immediately rejected the suggestion … no discussion to be had here, then. A statement from Number 10 was issued saying “We reject the call to lower the age of consent. The current age is in place to protect children and there are no plans to change it.”

So why the knee-jerk reaction? Within a few days of Professor Ashton’s suggestions, numerous publications condemned the idea, without engaging in the debate. Comment pages spawned thousands of criticisms, the vast majority of them based on the over-sexualisation of young people and the possibility that pedophiles could legally target 15 year olds.

These concerns are of course legitimate – the law does have a role to play in ensuring that young people are safe and are not being exploited or abused. But criminalising a third of teens is not exactly the ideal solution to keeping young people safe. As Amanda Hess writing for Slate comments, “Framing early sexual experiences as against the law—and potentially against the will of both sex partners—doesn’t provide the best framework for establishing healthy sexual attitudes and behaviours throughout life.”

I wanted to find out what teens think about this issue – how does the age of consent impact their views about sex? While the ‘debate’ has been raging between adults, it has largely excluded the views of young people, despite the fact that the age of consent, and any changes to it, primarily affects them.

15-year-old Alex commented on the potential for lowering the age of consent to send a message to young people which normalises, or even encourages, sex at a younger age. “I think it should stay how it is because it encourages younger people that having sex at 15 is what everybody should be doing … it could be forcing people into doing it when they don’t want to.”

The social pressures surrounding sexual activity could potentially be exacerbated if teens viewed a lower age of consent as a green light to have sex at a younger age. She pointed out that, in terms of maturity, “there is a massive difference between 15 and 16” and that “when you’re still 15, you might not know what you’re doing and what could happen to you.” Lowering the age of consent could therefore affect teens’ abilities to make informed decisions which are right for them.

On the other hand, 15-year-old Josh suggested that the law should be updated to reflect young peoples’ lives, stating that it doesn’t matter what the law is as teens will have sex regardless. And 19-year-old Joe looked at the issue from another perspective. Many of the arguments both for and against lowering the age of consent have focused on whether a change in legislation would reduce teen pregnancies.

The shadow public health minister Luciana Berger announced that, “Lowering the age of consent is not the way to tackle teenage pregnancy and we are against such a move.” But Joe saw this preoccupation with teenage pregnancy as clouding the issue; the risk of pregnancy should not be linked to young peoples’ rights to make their own decisions. Some LGBT teens, for example, may not necessarily have concerns about pregnancy; that should not exclude them from the debate about consent and age.

Joe reflected on his own journey coming out as a teenager; “it’s quite important for people to find themselves when it comes to sexuality. At 15 you are becoming aware of it and I think that sex is part of discovering yourself and your sexuality.” Lowering the age of consent could allow teens more self-determination in their sexual experiences, when conflicting pressures from family, peers and the media can make exploring you sexuality a difficult time.

Joe also related the backlash against Professor Ashton’s suggestions to intersectional issues of class. “This country has a massive problem with sex, which the root of is the politicians … we still have Eton-educated, rich, upper-middle class politicians who are out of touch with the issues facing working class, state-schooled teens. There is still a class divide and lowering the age of consent would make it easier for people to get better sex education and know what they are doing”.

The issue of the age of consent is clearly a divisive one. What with the government’s knee-jerk reaction and the outrage spouted in newspapers and comment pages, it seems that this is not a debate which will come to a conclusion any time soon.

What are your opinions on the age of consent? Do 15 year olds have the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship? Would reducing the age of consent make young people more vulnerable? Are politicians and the law out of touch with the lives of young people? Meet me in the comments and join the debate!

Written by Emmy Fisher

  • Yinello

    @the part with the other countries: It’s not just the lower age of consent. It’s also the attitude surrounding teenagers who have sex – the countries (generally speaking) provide them with proper information on sex, sexuality and the like at a young age. There is a lower teen pregnancy rate because most of them are informed. Coupled with services like contraceptives easily bought in stores or received for free when governmentally insured and there’s little problem. I don’t think just lowering the age of consent will magically solve things. I don’t live in the UK so I don’t know if UK schools have proper thorough sex education, but if they don’t they should get it pronto.

  • L

    In my opinion, it’s not just the age of consent that impacts whether or not teenagers have sex–it’s mostly the sex ed they receive. As a 16 year old in the UK, I can tell you that sex ed at my secondary school was awful–all we were ever really taught was how to use a condom, and what certain diseases were and why we shouldn’t get them. Nothing about the emotional side of sex, nothing for LGBT teenagers, hardly anything about alternative forms of contraception. Fortunately the college I’m at now offers great services and support in that area, but it’s too late: when I needed the information, I sought it out myself over the internet. And there’s another thing–the internet can be great for stuff like that, but used in the wrong way (i.e. for finding porn) it can be really damaging to teenagers and their perceptions of sex and what it should be like.

    What we really need in this country is a more open attitude to sex. Sex under sixteen is shamed because of the law, but the truth is that puberty is starting younger and some people–those who are ready for it–are having sex younger than people used to. So instead of shaming those who choose to have sex before 16, we need to just TALK about it, and that’s what’s going to lead to a decrease in teen pregnancies and STIs, not banning and shaming sex–and I mean consensual sex between two teenagers.

    There’s so much I want to say, and I am struggling a little to get it across, but hopefully you understand what I’m saying: attitude is everything. Age of consent will be ignored to an extent.

  • nunyabidnessfoo

    “She pointed out that, in terms of maturity, “there is a massive difference between 15 and 16”

    only a teenager could say something this ridiculous

    • Noel

      Looking back, there was a massive difference between my 15 year old self and my 16 year old self. My 16 year old self was quite a bit more mature than my 15 year old self. From the age of about 12 to about 23 there were major changes and growth with each passing year. My 18 year old self was more mature than my 17 year old self and the list goes on. After 23, I think it levels off a bit. I don’t think the growth and changes are quite as drastic, though still there of course. .

      You might want to look back on your past and really remember yourself at those ages. Your teenage years are such a time of growth that it is quite common for major changes to take place in a very short amount of time. What she said is perfectly reasonable, not at all ridiculous. She is just smart enough to see the changes in her peers.

      • nunyabidnessfoo

        Everyone has a different life story and plenty of people are forced to grow up quickly during mid-adolescence, but for the vast majority of people, the difference between 15 and 16 is miniscule. To say that there’s a “massive difference” is indicative of a great deal of life experience.

    • Tim

      and only a teenager would know

  • Inlustris

    I think there is a difference between 14 and 15 year olds having sex with people their own age versus people 3+ years older than them. It is easy to have the law reflect this.
    Where I live, if you are below the age of 18, you cannot be more than 3 years older than the minor. That seems perfectly reasonable to me. I don’t see why similar laws couldn’t be written.

    • LMNOP

      Massachusetts has a kind of silly, but surprisingly smart law–consent is 16 for girls, 18 for boys, and it has an age gap rule (I think it’s 3 years). Yep, it’s legally a fact–boys go slower. =P I can only speak to my own exp, but it did work pretty well in my case.