Whenever a public figure says ‘we need a debate here’, as Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, has done, it doesn’t need much in the way of translation to interpret this as ‘let’s change the law to my way of thinking’. Alas, the debate he started so promisingly about lowering the age of consent to 15, with the pundits all nicely worked up, has been nipped cruelly in the bud by Downing Street. David Cameron, possibly taking the view that he has upset social conservatives quite enough with the gay marriage issue, has said the government isn’t going there. And given that Labour policy is getting quite a bit of direction from Jon Cruddas just now, I wouldn’t have thought that Labour will be touching this one either. It remains, as ever, for the Lib Dems to stir things up.
But since Prof Ashton would like a debate, let’s have one. His case seems to be premised on the notion that since about a third of young people are already having sex before 16, they should be able to do so legally. He’s right about the sex of course. And it’s worth remembering that Spain lifted the age of consent from 12 only recently, which puts this discussion rather in context. There is, I may say, quite a lot of literary evidence to suggest that for much of British history, a 15-year-old girl would probably have been most men’s ideal bedmate. But then, until 1885, when the legal limit was raised from 13 to 16 to deal with the problem of child prostitution (which is still with us), the interest of the child wasn’t much discussed.
Simply shifting the age of consent to regularise what’s actually happening doesn’t necessarily leave us with an age of consent at 15, Prof Ashton’s preferred limit, you know. We could quite easily end up with the barrier put at 13 or 14, on the basis that this is the point at which lots of teenagers are starting to engage in sex. The Prof himself says that lowering the age of consent by a year would ‘draw a line in the sand’ against any possibility it might fall further. Well, the thing about lines in the sand is that they’re impermanent; why 15 should be any more sacrosanct than 16 isn’t clear.
Rather confusingly he’s also, like the PM, very exercised about the sexualisation of childhood and to protect them from ‘physical and mental abuse’ in relationships. I can’t quite see, myself, how lowering the age of consent is going to make the sexualisation of children less likely; if it affects the commercialisation of sex at all, it would probably go the other way. He is also emphatic that countries that have lower ages of consent have lower early teenage pregnancy rates; well, I’m not at all sure that this is what counts here. The one factor that really does militate against girls having sex too early is growing up with their own father in a two parent family, but I’m not sure we can legislate for that.
Let’s accept his contention that there are an awful lot of teenagers simply ignoring the law as it stands and that it would be a nuisance if every instance of fifteen year olds fornicating ended up in court. As Prof Ashton says, ‘they are doing it and we need to support and protect them’. What the legal position does do is to give us the option of taking the matter very seriously indeed when we want to. And what gives most parents the creeps is the notion of adult predators engaging in sex with children barely over the threshold of consent. We’re talking here, of course, of gay as well as straight predators, because the age of consent is the same for homosexual as well as heterosexual intercourse. The age of consent is a rough and ready way of protecting children from sexual exploitation; it’s there if we need to invoke it.
I suppose there are some 15 year olds who are mature about sex and relationships and lots of 16 year olds who aren’t. (And there is, obviously, quite a difference between someone just turned 16 and someone just before their 17th birthday.) But if we have to have a limit somewhere, 16 is probably the point where we’d assume that most teenagers are able to work out the consequences of what they’re doing and mature enough to tell a much older man trying to pressurise them into having sex where to get off. It’s arbitrary, of course, but that’s the thing about legal limits. I’m talking here, I may say, about what’s good enough for other people. My own children are half dozen a years and more away from all this but if I thought they were likely to have sex at sixteen, I’d lock them up.