The Age of Consent Debate: Face to face in the homosexual debate: Marianne Macdonald listens to the opposing arguments of a gay teenaged boy and a mature Tory traditionalist

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The Independent Online
Euan Sutherland is a gay 16-year-old. He lives at home with his father, an educational administrator, and his mother, a nurse, in Dulwich, south-east London. He is studying photography at an adult education college and works part-time at Sainsbury's stacking shelves.

Lady Olga Maitland, the Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, is sponsor of the Conservative Family Campaign, founder and chairman of Families for Defence and patron of the Rainbow Trust for Sick Children and the Parents of Murdered Children Group. She is married with two sons and a daughter.

I don't consider the way I am to be anything other than normal. It's the only way I know how to be

Are boys of 16 mature enough to decide their sexuality?

ES: Yes we are. The law recognises that straight teenagers can make up their own mind who they want to sleep with. The same is obviously true for 16-year-old gay men. Gay teenagers have so much extra pressure put on them by society and its prejudices they have to mature quicker. We have to come to terms with our sexuality and lifestyle and make difficult decisions whether to tell family and friends.

OM: In some cases, no. You can have boys of 16 who are emotional and very vulnerable. They can be perfectly normal heterosexuals, but if they are going through an awkward time with girls they might mistakenly think they are homosexuals and feel pressurised to yield to homosexual advances which could nudge them into a sexuality which isn't natural to them. That could mean they enter the twilight world of homosexuality and be denied normal family life. Sixteen-year- old girls are much more mature for their age. Also, if a girl has a heterosexual relationship she is not going against her basic nature and is less exposed to Aids.

Does the Bible's statement that homosexuality is

an abomination have a moral bearing on the age of consent?

If we're talking about what the Bible frowns on, adultery should be a criminal offence too. I don't consider the way I am to be anything other than normal. It's the only way I know how to be. People look at it as something dirty and unnatural and the law supports this. By discriminating against the age of consent people are encouraged to see homosexuality as wrong. I don't agree with the Bible. I have respect for people with religious beliefs, although personally I don't have any, but I would expect sympathy, tolerance and understanding, as Christianity teaches.

From what I understand, the Bible is full of what I call powerful metaphors. I wouldn't desperately like to pronounce on whether it's an abomination because the Bible also preaches forgiveness, understanding and compassion. But I think what it's trying to say, if you pick your way through the froth of Biblical language, is that homosexuality to people for whom it's not natural causes an enormous number of problems. If we lower the age of consent it will give it a veneer of acceptability and put more pressure on people. Homosexuality is natural for people born that way, but that is only about 0.2 per cent of the population. Those are figures from a study done at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

Would a lowered age of consent increase the

likelihood of boys being seduced by older men?

No. At the moment there is actually a greater risk of young gay men being victimised and assaulted. No one actually pays any attention to the law of consent at 21, but if any gay man was the victim of abuse in some way, whether physical, verbal or sexual, they would have to think very hard about going to the police because it would expose their illegal gay lifestyle. In fact, at the moment they are putting themselves at risk of prosecution simply by being the victims of a crime. When the age of consent comes down to 16 a young gay man will be able to tell a potential abuser to sod off and be able to report them to the police without the risk of getting themselves into trouble.

Yes. I've had constituents' letters about exactly that point. They are from older people looking back on their lives when they were young men in the Forces and subject to older men who were very persuasive and tried very hard to make it seem as if (homosexuality) was perfectly natural, telling them not to be silly and back away. If you lowered the age of consent that kind of man could use it as an argument to the younger ones, saying: 'What are you fussing about, it's legal.'

Do you agree with the statement that 'it is unfair that under-age homosexuals can be locked up for sexual activities only slightly different from heterosexuals of the same age'?

Of course it's unfair. I enjoy going to bed with people. But unlike heterosexual teenagers I have the thought running through my head the whole time that I'm breaking the law. My brother is 19 and he can bring his girlfriend back here and they can sleep together. That's wonderful - I'm very happy for them. But when I bring someone back I'm breaking the law and I'm putting my partner and my parents at risk of prosecution. Yet me and my brother are basically doing the same act. We are loving someone and we are enjoying ourselves, and if that's wrong then everyone in the world should be locked up. There's no way anyone can say wanting to love someone is a criminal

offence.

I wish this debate hadn't been turned into a battle over political correctness. This is not an equal opportunities issue. It's because boys and girls mature at different rates. Clearly, the sexual activities in each case are very, very different. There are also more dangers - you are more likely to catch Aids from homosexual acts.

What does the current age of consent at 21 achieve? Would 18 be an improvement?

The current age of consent doesn't achieve anything at the moment - if a gay teenager wants to sleep with someone they will. But it prevents a lot of things. It prevents happiness and health and well-being and it prevents the proper agencies discussing safe sex with gay teenagers. We are being denied health education because in the eyes of the law we don't exist. I received a 45-minute video at school about sex which didn't say anything about sexually transmitted diseases or HIV. It talked about unwanted pregnancies.

The current age of consent is a buffer zone to protect the younger ones. That's the most important thing. I suppose 18 would be an improvement: it's very difficult to sustain the 21 benchmark when people of 18 can do so many other things, including die for their country. But just because you can physically do things, like have a baby aged 14, it doesn't mean you should. I don't think it's healthy for any teenager to start having sex at 16; girls who do so are more likely to get pelvic infections and catch cancer of the womb. As for the argument about sex education in schools, anyone who goes to a family planning association can get the most graphic material about homosexual acts. Come on, that sort of stuff is being seen by four-year-olds upwards] It's all about pleasuring yourself, for Heaven's sake]

Should there be an age of consent for lesbians? If not, why not?

Queen Victoria didn't think women could do that to each other so there's no mention of lesbians in the law. But if they tried to pass an age of consent now for gay women there's no way it would go through. Everyone would say it was a totally outrageous violation of human rights. Yet they think bringing the age of consent down to 18 should make us happy. It doesn't. We've had our rights discriminated against for years. It's equality for all we're after. If they bring in 18 now, 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to be prosecuted because the police will start clamping down.

Not really, because there isn't the same kind of physical contact. There isn't penetrative sex in the same way and there isn't the risk of Aids. I'm not going into the arts and crafts of what lesbians do, but for a start there's not the same opportunity to pass on infections. Personally I think there's always a danger that during those very turbulent teenage years girls can get caught up in friendships which become almost too powerful, although it is perfectly clear they're not lesbian. But ultimately it does less physical harm.

(Photograph omitted)

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