Leading article: Common sense about the age of consent

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The Independent Online

Over the past 30 years or so, public attitudes towards sex offences, and sex with children in particular, have become even more intolerant than they already were, even as social mores in other respects have generally become more permissive. So uncompromising has the modern - and thoroughly appropriate - revulsion at paedophilia now become, however, that even quite moderate opinions, such as those expressed yesterday by Terry Grange, are widely considered beyond the pale.

Mr Grange, spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers on child protection and chief constable of Dyfed Powys, said he did not think that men who had sexual relations with girls over 13 should be classed as paedophiles. That term should be reserved for men who had sex with pre-pubescent girls, he said.

Every parent worries about when their children start having sex - and whom they start with. For most, the latter is of greater concern than the former. A boy and girl of 14 and 13 messing about behind the bike sheds is less worrying than a 13-year-old girl who strikes up a relationship with a 50-year-old man.

Mr Grange is surely right, therefore, to say that we need a sense of proportion, and some flexibility towards interpreting the age of consent and who is included on the Sex Offenders' Register. Curiously, over the last century, the age of consent has risen, from 12 in the mid 19th century to 16 today, while the age of puberty has fallen from 15-16 then to 11-12 today, a direct reflection of our improved diet.

But although children are maturing earlier physically, their psychological maturity is slower to catch up. This is why they must be protected - especially from those who would exploit their vulnerability. The average age of becoming sexually active in Britain is 16, which means that many do so younger. Few are suggesting that the age of consent should be raised or lowered. The question is how it should be policed.

In Canada, which is planning to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16, the government has said it will preserve the "within five years" rule, which would absolve those who had consensual sex with a 14- or 15-year-old of committing an offence, so long as they were not more than five years older - up to the age of 19 or 20 respectively.

The Canadian example has much to commend it. It is realistic, humane and informed by common sense. And it would have the important benefit of freeing the police to concentrate on those who pose a real threat to our children.

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