Lowering the age of consent won't help teenagers

But there is certainly a need for more debate around teen sexuality

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The Independent Online

Just when you thought parenting teenagers was tough enough, a leading public health expert suggests that the age of consent be lowered to 15. Thanks, Professor John Ashton for giving us yet another subject to argue about over Sunday lunch.

I am entirely certain that Professor Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, was acting with good intentions when he made his suggestion, which was promptly slapped down by Downing Street and Nick Clegg today.

By having the temerity to suggest that a third of boys and girls might be having sex at 14 and 15, he may have shocked some only by saying aloud what many suspect to be true.

I write ‘suspect’ because let’s be absolutely honest, no matter how good parents’ relationship with teens are, most are going to be among the last to know – until things go wrong. However, I do agree with the Professor when he says: “We need a debate here. It's time adults started talking about the situation to take these enormous pressures off children from becoming sexually active too early.”

His assertion that 15 is a more realistic age is not one with which I concur, but the sexual activity of younger teens is a subject that should be debated. Too often adults want to stick fingers in their ears and sing “la, la, la – not listening” for fear of what they might discover.

There’s certainly more merit in what he says than when the same subject last reared its head. In the wake of high-profile celebrity court appearances on historic sexual abuse charges, the senior barrister, Barbara Hewson said in May that the age of consent should be lowered to 13!

After Stuart Hall admitted 14 charges of indecently assaulting girls (including a nine-year-old) Hewson called his crimes “low-level misdemeanours”, a statement criticised by both the NSPCC and her own chambers.

The point here is surely to acknowledge the need for greater debate around teen sexuality: from consent and contraception to pornography and exploitation. And it really “wasn’t ever thus”.

Too many children are left alone to navigate their way through the increasing pressures of ubiquitous sexualized imagery, and the new wild west of Facebook, sexting and Snapchat. That, and the suggestion I heard that one in four clicks on the internet are for pornography.

Yes, our teens need more help, but not by lowering the age of consent. It actually reduces the pressures on children; an anchor of sanity designed to protect those who may be physically ready but emotionally immature. No one age-fits-all solution will ever be perfect. But if “16” helps just a few thousand children every year feel more confident about waiting until they are ready, then it’s worth it.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of London Live