Do they know they're breaking the law?

A new law aimed at paedophiles could find teenagers caught in the net. Elizabeth Heathcote and Andrew Johnson report
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The Independent Online

Teenagers who risk a furtive kiss could be breaking the law under a new sexual offences act that comes into effect this week.

Teenagers who risk a furtive kiss could be breaking the law under a new sexual offences act that comes into effect this week.

The legislation is meant to target paedophiles, but campaigners say it will take Britain back to the mores of the Fifties by criminalising all sexual behaviour among under-16s.

The Sexual Offences Act, which becomes law on 1 May, outlaws "sexual touching" with anyone below the age of consent. Touching is defined as "all physical contact, including touching with any part of the body ... through anything, for example, through clothing".

"The Bill was meant to bring the law up to date," said Terri Dowty, policy director with Action on Rights for Children. "In fact it's now tighter than it was in the Fifties." Ms Dowty is one of several children's campaigners and groups who lobbied unsuccessfully for an amendment to the Bill to exempt consensual relationships between young people of a similar age.

"It is such a legal mess they have created by shirking this problem," Ms Dowty said. "Theoretically, two 15-year-olds kissing will be breaking the law, but who is committing the offence?"

The Home Office has issued guidance notes saying it has no intention of prosecuting "mutually agreed" relationships between young people where the two parties were close in age, "for instance an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old".

But it refused to amend the Act itself, leaving prosecutions to the discretion of the Crown Prosecution Service. "Legalising consensual sexual activity between teenage children would damage a fundamental plank in our raft of child protection measures - we are not prepared to do this," a Home Office spokesperson said.

Campaigners, however, fear that special-interest groups could put pressure on authorities to bring prosecutions.

Ms Dowty said: "All you need is for the daughter of someone of that persuasion to be caught petting with her boyfriend and you would have a big push for a prosecution."

Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, is concerned that uncertainty surrounding the new law will prevent young people receiving the sexual advice and services they need. "Professionals, parents and young people are very confused about whether the law makes changes that are going to affect them. Young people don't know whether they can get advice, professionals whether they can give advice."

The Independent on Sunday spoke to two teenage girls about how the law change might have affected them.

Amy Petzoldt, from north London, met her 17-year-old boyfriend a few weeks ago on a camping trip when she was still 15.

"It wouldn't have stopped me going out with him," said Amy, who has just turned 16. "Maybe I would have lied about my age, but that's about as much as it would have affected me. It's not as if they're going to track me down individually.

"I wouldn't really go out with someone older than 18 anyway. Partly because they might be too mature and also I don't think I'd have too much in common with them. My boyfriend, for example, helped me with my GCSEs.

"Then there's the maturity aspect. I wouldn't go out with someone younger than me. That's partly because it's seen as weird for a girl to go out with a younger boy at our age, but also because boys are more immature than girls. That shows with my boyfriend - he's more my age than 17."

Her friend, Helen Gibson, also recently 16, agrees. "I don't have a boyfriend, but I think 17 is the oldest I would go out with," she said. "My friends are really the same age as me, 15 and 16. We do meet older boys through brothers, but if someone isn't in my age group they are not really going to get to know me.

"There are some boys at 17 who seem much younger than they are, and some seem much older. It all depends on the person."