Law on gay sex 'does not protect young men': Government research group tells MPs that attempt to limit male homosexual behaviour has failed. Rhys Williams reports

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The Independent Online
A RESEARCH group funded by the Department of Health today joined the calls for the homosexual age of consent to be reduced from 21 to 16.

Project Sigma, which is also financed by the Medical Research Council, has circulated research findings to MPs showing that the existing age of consent neither limits male homosexual behaviour, nor 'protects' young men from unwanted sexual activity.

Instead, the group says, it needlessly makes criminals out of young men 'fully able to make choices about their sexual activity and preferences', hinders education about Aids, socially isolates young gay men and justifies discrimination, oppression and violence.

Ford Hickson, a senior research officer at Sigma, said: 'As far as the data is concerned, this seduction- corruption theory is a fantasy. Why it's such a potent argument and why people reach for it so quickly is, I think, because it fits into the other prejudice about homosexuals and paedophilia, which again has no basis in fact.'

During the past six years, Sigma has interviewed 1,110 practising homosexual men. It is the largest study of its kind in Europe with the most detailed and comprehensive database on male homosexual behaviour and the social lifestyles of gay and bisexual men in Britain.

Sigma hopes that the research will dispel many 'myths'. MPs opposed to lowering the age of consent have argued that any reduction will expose young men to unwanted attention from older men, encouraging them to become homosexual. Trevor Skeet, the Conservative MP for Bedfordshire North, said recently: 'We do not want to corrupt our youth like Greece and Rome. If people are going this way they need some maturity behind them.'

But the research revealed the current age of consent does not prevent homosexual behaviour. Nearly two- thirds of Sigma's research sample had had homosexual contact by the time they were 16, while 88 per cent had done so by the time they were 21. The average age for a first homosexual experience was 15.7 years.

Of those who had their first sexual experience after 15, 90 per cent had already recognised their sexual orientation; the average age difference between gay partners was just one year. The vast majority

had hoped for their first sexual

encounter and actively sought it. 'We did not speak to a single gay man from over 1,100 who thought his current sexual orientation was the result of unwanted sexual activity at an early age. Indeed, there is no credible scientific evidence to support such claims,' the research concludes.

Mr Hickson added: 'If you look at gay men's average age preferences, they very much clump around the mid-twenties and thirties. That's not a function of law, but is to do with how desire is

constructed.'

The research also found no substance in claims that making the age of consent 16 would encourage the spread of HIV by promoting homosexual behaviour. HIV infection was spread, it said, through unprotected anal sex and on average the men in the study had their first experience of anal sex some five years after beginning their sexual career.

John Smith, leader of the Labour Party, yesterday pledged to support the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals to 16 when MPs are given a free vote on the issue. 'I will vote to change the law to allow it at 16. I think it is a matter of equality and freedom,' he said on BBC 1's Breakfast With Frost.

'I think the boundaries of the criminal law should be very carefully defined indeed. I think the case for this reform has been made.'

Letters, page 15

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