Can we dispense with the normalities?: The age of consent for homosexuals ought to be fixed at 18, but no lower, argues John Habgood, the Archbishop of York

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The Independent Online
THE DEMAND for equality in the age of consent rests on the false assumption that homosexuality and heterosexuality are simply two sides of the same coin. This is not to say that homosexuals are any less valuable as people, or significant in their relationships, or morally responsible, than heterosexuals. Nor does it entail that they should be forbidden to express their sexuality in appropriate ways. Nor is it an invitation to moral denigration of the kind all too often indulged in by those to whom the very idea of homosexuality is abhorrent. To say that two ways of life are not equivalent is not to condemn one of them out of hand. But it is to put a question mark against policies which presuppose that there is no essential difference between them.

The educational world has provided fertile ground for those who, in their anxiety not to disconcert potential homosexuals, lean over backwards to proclaim that all sexual orientations are equal. The recent episode involving children being banned from Romeo and Juliet illustrates the absurd lengths to which such ideas can be taken. Successful lobbying and strong media influences have raised the profile of homosexuals much higher than their numbers actually warrant, with the result that claims to equal attention are no longer felt to be preposterous. In a mature society people should be sensitive towards, and accepting of, those who differ from themselves. It does not follow from this, however, that there are no distinctions to be drawn, or that a society should not be able to safeguard certain principles in appropriate laws.

The point at issue is the one that bedevils all modern societies which are moving in a pluralist and multicultural direction. I say 'moving' because it is not true that Britain is already pluralist, nor necessarily desirable that it should be. Indeed, it is by no means certain that a fully pluralist society could survive. The questions are always: what norms do we need? are the core values of society strong enough to permit a variety of recognised departures from those norms? when are laws needed to express and to buttress the norms themselves?

The current general debate about moral values is a symptom of anxiety that perhaps the norms have been eroded too far. An indication of that may be the recent concentration on the indiscretions of public figures, given that the norms are frequently expressed in the lives of symbolic individuals rather than in laws. When, a few years ago, the Bishops of the Church of England published their study document on sexuality, the distinction they drew between what might be permitted among the laity and what was required of clergy was widely criticised as discriminatory. The reason for it, however, was precisely this perception of the symbolic and public character of the clergy's role.

In society at large role models are weak, and weakened even more by our present 'culture of contempt'. It is all the more important, therefore, to ask searching questions about the possible effects of relaxing the law. The law may not be very effective in dissuading individuals from doing what they want to do, but it defines a public standard of behaviour. If sensibly administered, it can be educative and persuasive without being oppressive. But, equally, to abolish laws or change them drastically can be educative in ways that are not always anticipated by those who seek to do so. What might seem to be an education in justice can easily be read as an invitation to experiment; and as always tends to happen, the experiments soon begin to reach down well below the newly permitted lower limit.

Even more significantly, though, a change in the law also conveys the message that distinctions which might have been enshrined in the old law are no longer significant. It is not sufficient to counter this by saying that the law should not have been interfering in people's private lives anyway. Sexual behaviour in every culture is set within a context of law and custom, because the freedom of people to associate with one another depends on knowing where the boundaries lie.

For young people the absence of clear boundaries can be particularly damaging. One of the interesting results from the recent Wellcome survey of sexual attitudes is the number who felt that they had had sexual experience too young. There are also significant differences between the sexes. It looks as though the unrestrained and promiscuous character of many young male homosexual adventures is related to the fact that women are more likely to channel sexuality into commitment, and that without their presence, this restraining influence is no longer felt. It is widely observed that girls usually mature emotionally a year or two before boys. In other words, there may be a biological rationale for an age discrimination between men and women, and the present distinction between male homosexuals and lesbians may not be as indefensible as is often claimed.

Those who are persuaded that there are no distinctions to be drawn between homosexuality and heterosexuality will find no difficulty in reducing the age of consent to 16. As one who holds that there is a distinction, rooted not only in these biological differences but in the belief that there are proper and improper uses for the human body, I would not want a signal to be sent to young people that sexual choices are of no concern to anybody but themselves. Nor do I want to maintain unreasonable laws that are largely ignored and which sometimes, in the hands of the vindictive or the unscrupulous, lead to tragic convictions. I hope Parliament will reduce the age of consent to 18, thus signalling that homosexuality in young men is neither to be treated as uncontroversial nor to be penalised beyond the age of maturity. A reduction of three years will provide an opportunity to assess the social consequences. A reduction of five years would assume more knowledge about how or why people become homosexuals than we now possess. And it would remove a distinction which remains real, no matter how vociferous the protests against it.

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