Leading Article: Time to see one age for every inclination

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THE PRESENT law on the age of sexual consent, which allows heterosexuals to have intercourse at 16, but forbids homosexual men to do so until the age of 21, is indefensible. It is a throwback to an age when citizens were not considered responsible adults until 21, and a relic of the confusion in which a fast-changing society found itself in 1967, when homosexual relationships between consenting men over 21 first became legal in Britain.

The question for thoughtful MPs in the coming free vote on the matter promised in the next session of Parliament is whether the age of homosexual consent should be lowered to 18 or to 16. A vote for 18 expresses the sentiment that the world would be a happier place if nobody were homosexual. I don't wish to discriminate against homosexuals, such people may say; but I wouldn't want my son to become one. Giving those sons two years in which to experiment with girls before approaching boys, they believe, signals that society finds homosexuality regrettable but does not wish to make it illegal.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that such discrimination would change behaviour. A survey sponsored by the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health suggests that the median age at which practising male homosexuals have their first sexual experience is already under 16, the majority with a partner no more than two years older.

Equalising the ages of consent for heterosexual and homosexual acts would remove a potent source of hostility between many young gay men and the police, and by bringing teenage gay sex into the open would help to reduce the worrying number of older teenagers who commit suicide because they are unable to come to terms with their homosexuality.

But liberalisation should not become a licence for older men to prey on boys. The police and courts should be vigorous in discouraging the corruption of minors by adults, and prosecutions of adults who have sex with both boys and girls should be taken as seriously as before. Nor should there be any change in public policy on those who have sex in public places. If gays want equal treatment on the age of consent, they cannot offer special pleas for habits in public lavatories and parks that would be offensive if practised by men and women.