No, it's not a licence for dodgy scout-masters

Andrew Marr on the gay age of consent

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So, at least in civilian life, the last serious piece of legislation that treats homosexuality as a lesser, shameful expression of human love will be ditched. There will be a free vote; given the composition of the new Commons, it would be amazing if the age of consent isn't then lowered to 16. Liberals will celebrate. Conservatives will shudder, conjuring pictures of predatory older men invading suburbia and carrying off tousle- headed young men for a life of debauchery. I'm a liberal; but it is worth running through the hostile case in some detail.

Here, as I understand it, are the main arguments against changing the law. Homosexuality, through the ``boy love'' tradition, is more focused on youthful images: so boys require special protection. It may be one thing to get the law out of a relationship between two teenagers, but what about, you know, those dodgy scout-master types? Isn't youthful homosexuality a phase, something people mostly grow out of, unless they are ``corrupted''? Is it really the case that, in our sex-obsessed society, it is a priority to legalise more of it?

There is one of those arguments I have some time for, but let's take them in order. There is a particular fascination with youth in gay culture, however inconvenient it is for liberals to admit it. Bits are presumably blatantly paedophile - but the same is true of macho heterosexual life, with its ``red-blooded'' approval of schoolgirl fantasies. So are young men at particular risk, in a way girls aren't? The evidence suggests that young men are sexually preyed on, by and large, where they are already in a position of weakness, where there is a power relationship. That has been so throughout the century in boarding schools, prisons, children's homes, and on the streets. The answers lie in internal regulation, and a continuing war on homelessness and youth prostitution.

In ordinary life, 16-year-olds are more knowledgeable than previous generations, and no less tough. They are far likelier to know words like ``abuse'' and ``paedophile'' and are, in that sense, better protected already. Anyone trying to ``lure'' a youth into homosexual activity against their will is likely to end up with a split lip. The main defence of gay youths against older men is the same one used by all young people against mature suitors - that they find them unappealing. In the sex war, whatever your orientation, the young are more heavily armed.

What about the ``just a phase'' argument? Can people be caught by homosexual culture while they are confused about their sexuality and then hustled into a life they wouldn't otherwise have chosen? This implies that there is such a strong gay culture that it can dazzle and hold people against their will. But surely the opposite is true. We are utterly surrounded by heterosexual images and stereotypes, from films to TV to the press, to advertising of all kinds. If people were ``turned'' straight or gay by the power of culture, there would be no homosexuals left at all. What scientific evidence we have is all the other way - sexuality is more about the brain's wiring than the lure of the exciting loft-apartment life led by chaps with other chaps in leather chaps and waterfall moustaches.

In the real world, families and parents will provide more than enough of a human barrier to thoughtlessly coming out, without the intervention of the law. And anyway, wherever the judicial process tries to lumber into intimate, consenting relations, it tends to be crude, blundering, and therefore cruel.

All of this said, and the case for the lowering of the age of consent established, does one lean back and applaud our sexual culture generally, for its maturity and common sense? No. Our culture has been over-sexualised. A balanced and mature culture would value friendship more than we do, and leave more admiring and conversational space for non-sexual relations of all kinds. It would be less goggle-eyed about genitalia and less titteringly obsessive about individuals' private lives.

A certain degree of privacy is essential to civilised existence. Yet health do-goodery, combined with the Oprah Winfrey-fication of television, now classes everyone who hasn't an active and varied sex life as a sad human failure to be helped. Let me through, I'm a sexologist! It can only be a matter of time before the Department of Health issues advice on the right number of weekly orgasms and approved sexual positions.

Gay culture, assertive, garrulous, witty, pushing the boundaries, and carrying its own political agenda, has certainly been part of that post- Sixties, sort-of-Freudian sex campaign. It too has often been immature - though the triumphal celebration of promiscuous sex would probably have been in retreat by now even without Aids.

The early campaigners for changes to the law and for a more open attitude to sex assumed that it would lead to a less stressful, more grown-up atmosphere. Has it? Not a chance. The sexual pressures are different but as great as ever. We have leapt straight from repression to exhibitionism. ``Adult'' on a magazine or book or video is a euphemism for porn. It is a good thing that people (mostly) aren't prosecuted for consensual private sex. But we seem to have become more open and tolerant - and yet more childish and prurient at the same time.

Maybe it's just a phase our country is going through, a time of juvenile ``confusion'' as we pass from legal and cultural repression to a calmer adulthood in the 2000s. Maybe we are still the children in the sweetshop. Certainly, there is some evidence that those cultures which were sexually liberated earlier, like Sweden and Denmark, are less infantile than we are today. Perhaps now, once this final act of decriminalisation has been carried through, we can all enjoy the ultimate sexual liberation - the freedom to treat what is ordinary and human as simply that.

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