30th April 16:57
More about the law doing more harm than good... (anxiety intercourse jaw)
The Times, Tuesday 18 November 2003
*** and the under-16s: is the law doing more harm than good?
by Danny Lee
The argument for lowering the age of consent is being examined
in a series of television do***entaries and dramas
A ****AGE girl talks timidly about losing her virginity,
carefully explaining her feelings. "I was 13," Laura says. "It was, like,
the thing to do - everyone was doing it. But I would never sleep with
someone I wasn't in a relationship with."
In *** Before 16: Why the Law is Failing, the first in a season
of Channel 4 programmes on ****age *** that began on Sunday, the apparently
sensible attitude of Laura, now 16, towards doing something illegal
illustrates the dilemma facing the law. The Adult at 14 season emphasises
the importance of protecting young people from abuse, but suggests that the
law is frightening them into vulnerable secretiveness by maintaining an age
of consent that unnecessarily restricts their right to make responsible
decisions. Sunday's do***entary was followed by Pleasureland, a drama on the
"That the age of consent at 16 is out of step with the modern
world is jaw-droppingly apparent," Miranda Sawyer, the programme's
presenter, says. She refers to a **** magazine survey, in which 83 per cent
of correspondents who said that they had had *** claimed to have done so
before the age of 16.
Sawyer is not the only critic. In a controversial House of Lords
judgment (Regina v K, 2001) Lord Millet said: ". . . the age of consent has
long since ceased to reflect ordinary life, and in this respect Parliament
has signally failed to discharge its responsibility for keeping the criminal
law in touch with the needs of society."
Allan Levy, QC, disagrees. "The element of protection is a very
strong argument for keeping it at 16," he says. "Reducing the age would
leave young people too vulnerable."
Jan Barlow, chief executive of the Brook national advice agency
for the under-25s, adds: "Our recent research shows that young people don't
want the age of consent to be lowered. There is a balance to be struck
between recognising young people's lives and protecting them from abuse by
Later in the television do***entary, Laura says that she became
pregnant while she was 15 and her boyfriend was 21. They were afraid of
seeking proper advice because they realised that they had broken the law.
The programme reveals the anxiety of professionals that the
***ual Offences Bill will criminalise any sort of ***ual activity, not just
intercourse, between consenting ****agers younger than 16, forcing them even
more into the vulnerable world of secrecy. Barlow, for example, is concerned
that the Bill will make "normal, non-penetrative ***ual activity criminal
and send a message to young people that anything they do will result in
prosecution, deterring them from seeking help".
After interviewing numerous ****agers, children and
professionals, Sawyer concludes that the age of consent should be 12,
maintaining "childhood innocence while supporting consensual ****age ***ual
experimentation", which is a legitimate part of growing up.
This is a view reflected in the laws of many other countries. In
Chile the age of consent is 12. In Italy it is 14 and in Japan and Spain it
is 13. In Britain, however, mainstream professional opinion favours keeping
the age of consent at 16.
In any event, the reality is that the minimum age is blurred.
Intercourse is legal at 16 in England, Wales, Scotland and the Channel
Islands. In Northern Ireland it is legal at 17. A man, or a boy aged 10 or
over, who has ***ual intercourse with a girl aged 13, 14 or 15 is committing
an offence in England and Wales. But for a man under 24 charged with a first
offence, a belief that the girl was over 16 can be a valid defence.
The present laws were born of a desire to stop girls being sold
into prostitution in the second half of the 19th century, when the age of
consent was raised from 12 to 13 and then 16. Their main purpose is not to
protect the young from themselves, but from abuse by adults.
Whatever age is chosen, there will be dissent. Young people
develop at different rates. Levy says: "In this area, with or without the
***ual Offences Bill, you are dependent on prosecution authorities having
discretion and being sensible, looking at the relative maturity of the
parties, by bringing to court only cases where people have been taken
advantage of. At one end of the spectrum is something next to **** and at
the other a girl who may be happy with an encounter. Cir***stances vary
enormously and the age of consent should remain at 16."