Against The Grain: The law doesn't stop under-16s having sex

Nick Jackson
Thursday 15 February 2007 01:00
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Matthew Waites is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Glasgow. He argues that we need to lower the age of consent for sex.

The current law on the age of consent does not work. The law criminalises all sexual activity under the age of 16, but it does not stop under-16s having sexual experiences.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles demonstrates widespread sexual activity before 16. The median age of first male/female intercourse is 16. The average for "sexual experience" was 14 when analysed in the early 1990s. Activity under 16 seems to be increasing.

The law simply stigmatises much of what many teenagers regard as normal behaviour, and fosters a climate of denial among parents and some professionals, which prevents some teenagers from seeking information and assistance.

The minimum age for sexual activity should be lowered to 14, but supple-mented by an "age-span provision", whereby people aged 14 and 15 would only be able to have sexual activity with a person less than two years older, until 16.

Age-span provisions have never been addressed in depth in UK reviews of sex offences. Yet they exist in at least 43 US states, have been recommended in an Australian federal review, and are proposed in a Canadianbill. Many continental European countries supplement their minimum age with other forms of law such as seduction provisions. So the UK attitude that age-spans are a quirky idea is behind the times.

Defenders of the current law say it enables agencies to intervene in cases where consensual behaviour between young people of similar age is nonetheless "abusive" and "exploitative". Criminalising all consensual sexual activity up to 16 is not an appropriate response; what is convenient for state agencies is not necessarily what's best for young people.

Prohibitions on certain sexual activity should exist but we should put young people at the centre of our policy-making. Prohibitions can be thought of as part of a specific form of citizenship for young people. This may seem counter-intuitive, but there are various prohibitions that the state places on adults - such as taxation, or speed limits - which we conceptualise as embodying our responsibilities as adult citizens.

If we focus on the interests of young people as a group, then prohibitions on activity that is consensual, pleasurable and may have no negative consequences for individuals can be understood as legitimate in order to address patterns of risk. But we need to decriminalise some of their sex with each other.

'The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship' by Matthew Waites is available from Palgrave Macmillan

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