Experts oppose moralists on gay sex: Church groups and many Tories reject professional view on Monday's vote. Marianne Macdonald reports

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The Independent Online
ANALYSIS of the debate on lowering the homosexual age of consent has revealed how sharply the views of many Church and parliamentary representatives differ from those held by leaders of the 'caring professions'.

Since December, the amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill proposing a homosexual age of consent at 16 instead of 21 has been widely debated. The House of Commons is finally scheduled to vote on the issue next Monday.

Those declaring themselves in favour include almost all the professional agencies involved in medical and social services, homosexual teenagers themselves, the Labour leadership, and 20 agony aunts.

Those arguing against have been largely traditionalist Conservative MPs, bishops, headmasters of public schools and those who claim to speak for 'the family'.

There are also the mavericks: Edwina Currie, Conservative MP for Derbyshire South, who tabled the amendment, and the bishops of Edinburgh, Monmouth and Durham. They have joined the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Medical Association, the British Psychological Society, the Health Education Authority, the children's charity Barnardos, the British Association of Social Workers and the National Association of Probation Officers in calling for the age to be lowered to 16.

Many cite the lack of evidence that teenage boys are more sexually vulnerable than teenage girls. Jean Harris, of the RCP, said: 'There is no evidence that homosexuals or boys in general are less capable - that is just back-to-basics gut prejudice.' The BPS agreed: 'There is no contemporary psychological evidence to support the differential in the age of consent.'

Probably the most common argument in favour of the amendment is that it would improve health education and help to prevent Aids. The HEA said fixing the age at 16 was, for this reason, 'crucial for the health of the nation'.

Anthony Pinching, Professor of Immunology at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, warned a Commons meeting on health that doctors were facing a new HIV epidemic because young men were not part of a legal community: 'The fact that their sexual activity is illegal is a major constraint on the development of coherent peer pressure about safe sex.'

Dr Sandy Macara, the chairman of the BMA council, said: 'It could be of real benefit to patients to remove the present discrimination that exists because it removes the barrier that young men may perceive in seeking from doctors and others advice about their health and medical treatment.'

The 20 agony aunts who petitioned Downing Street last month also claimed that young gay men were not receiving the advice they needed. They asked: 'How can we give these young men the advice they need when we are dealing with a criminal offence?'

Project Sigma, a research group funded by the Department of Health, has interviewed 1,110 homosexual men. Its report cited lack of evidence for the spread-of-Aids and the 'seduction-corruption' theories. It said HIV infection was spread through unprotected anal sex, which men first practised, on average, five years after starting their sexual career.

Napo has expressed its unease at having to make moral judgements when preparing reports on young men convicted of homosexual activity, while Dr Michael Forth, consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, has argued that the law causes depression in teenage gays.

For others it is a question of justice. Mrs Currie says: 'We treat gays in this country with tremendous cruelty and prejudice.' John Smith, the Labour leader, has called it 'a matter of equality and freedom' - as have the actor Sir Ian McKellen and David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham.

The opposing side argues on morality. Valerie Riches, of Family and Youth Concern, feared for the vulnerability of boys: 'Aids is predominantly a problem that affects male homosexuals. Male homosexuality is also associated with other health risks, the exploitation of teenagers as rent boys, and a sado- masochistic subculture: do we really want to enlarge the pool of vulnerable young men?'

Donald Campbell, a psychoanalyst who says he has several confused and disturbed gay men as clients, argued that early homosexual sex could do long-term damage.

Among agony aunts who did not sign the Downing Street petition was Patricia Mansfield, of the magazine Take a Break, who said that as a boarding-school matron she had seen young boys' ambivalent attitudes to sex.

She added: 'I have had letters from men who were involved with homosexuals when they were young and then became heterosexual. They write saying they are plagued with guilt at the homosexual games they played.'

Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, who supports an age of consent at 18, questions teenage boys' maturity - 'Sixteen-year-old girls are much more mature for their age' - and fears that they could be nudged towards a homosexuality that is not natural to them.

Others refer to their experience as mothers, the Bible, or instinctive revulsion. Maggie Drummond, a freelance journalist, claimed: 'Spotty, insecure and unlovely to all but their mums they (adolescent boys) are infinitely more vulnerable and suggestible.' Christopher Bacon, headmaster of Dean Close boarding school in Cheltenham, noted that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. And Lord Ferrers, Tory home affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, said he would like the homosexual age of consent to be raised to 75 years.

(Photograph omitted)

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