The Age of Consent Debate: Young gay men being exposed to risk of Aids: Health workers fear breaking law

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The Independent Online
GAY MEN below the age of consent are being needlessly exposed to Aids because health workers are afraid to advise them about safe sex, according to Barnardos, which this week indicated its support for lowering the age to 16.

Young men, some of whom worked as prostitutes, were being turned away from clinics because health workers felt 'inhibited' by the present laws on homosexuality, Barnardos said.

'The present laws prevent us from giving practical support and information,' said Carol Lindsay Smith, development officer for HIV services for the children's charity.

'We find ourselves in a ludicrous situation of handing out condoms to girls who are 16 and to heterosexual boys who are 16, but not to gay 16-year- olds.'

One health worker was advised to leave a bowl of condoms in front of a client thought to be homosexual, then leave the room. That way he could not be accused of aiding or abetting 'criminal behaviour'.

Announcing its decision to support an 'equal age of consent' - 16 - Barnardos said that young men needed advice and protection from 'dangerous situations'.

Concern for the welfare of young gays has grown after an unpublished report found that nearly one in three male prostitutes may be infected with HIV. The report, written by Dr David Tomlinson, consultant in HIV and genito-urinary medicine at St Mary's Hospital in London, found that more than half of the men and boys did not use condoms.

Mrs Lindsay Smith said that young men at risk needed to be targeted.

'Many of our clients fall into the high-risk category. If their behaviour fell within the law we would be able to offer them support, precautions and advice they need,' she added.

Barnardos first decided to do work on HIV in 1989. 'We recognised our responsibility to give young people sound information on personal, social and sexual development and coping as mature sexual beings,' Mrs Lindsay Smith said.

Since then the charity has sought to advise young people despite fears on both sides that the 'criminal behaviour' will be reported to police.

'We've had to make it clear to gay clients that it is unwise to give us a real name or address. In theory we should inform the police,' Mrs Lindsay Smith said.

Probation officers have added their voice to the campaign to equalise the age of sexual consent at 16, claiming they are currently wrongly forced to make moral judgements when preparing reports and supervision of young men convicted of homosexual activity, writes Heather Mills.

The National Association of Probation Officers also argued that continued criminalisation of young gay men's activity conflicts with the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which places a duty on workers within the justice system to avoid discrimination.

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