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