Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

Lowering the Age of Consent

Today, Peter Tatchell has written for Huffington Post about a reduction in the Age of Consent (AoC), currently set at 16 years in the UK. He believes that this should be reduced to 14.

Mr Tatchell is apparently concerned about protecting children from criminality. As a result of these concerns, I did a straw poll (highly unscientific, I know!) amongst friends and professionals that I know who work with children and young people. Only one could recollect a case where a prosecution of this type occurred - and this was in 1983, with the young people being 16 and 14. The 16 year old male was charged and accepted a caution.

I've worked with children and young people for many years and known many cases where young people were having consensual sex with other young people.  The aims of professional services in these cases is the protection of children, and in my experience, that protection extends to a discussion about emotional well being and access to contraception and sexual health services. I have never known a case where the young people were referred to the police for under age sex.

Lowering the age of consent without statutory sex education would likely expose young people to greater risk. Indeed, this article in the Pink News explains that young people don't want the AoC to be lowered, for a number of reasons. Simon Blake, CEO of Brook Charity states:

Young people also tell us that the age of consent a) sometimes feels a bit irrelevant if they have made a decision to have sex – then it is love and trust that counts b) some young people – particularly young women – tell us the age of consent can be a good negotiating tool if they don’t want to have sex, and are being encouraged or feel pressured to by a partner c) they need to know they are highly unlikely they will be criminalised if they have consenting sex with somebody who is about the same age and d) every young person must know they have a legal right to access contraceptive advice and treatment even if they are under 16.

In light of this, I'd like to ask Peter Tatchell some questions - which given the likely response to his HuffPost piece, I would expect he'll be able to answer.

1. Has Mr Tatchell vocally supported one (or more) of the many 'Better Sex Education' campaigns?

2. How many under 16's did Mr Tatchell discuss the age of consent with, before writing his opinion piece focused on the protection of children  and young people from criminalisation?

3. How would a change in the Age of Consent protect young people from sexual exploitation by older young people or adults?

4. How many under 16's have been criminalised for under age sex in the UK? (This information is likely available under a Freedom of Information request).

In our view, any campaigning for the lowering of the AoC must include statutory sex education, protection for vulnerable young people and, most importantly, be led by young people.

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10 thoughts on “Lowering the Age of Consent

  • Admin says:

    This is the response from Peter Tatchell.

    1. Has Mr Tatchell vocally supported one (or more) of the many ‘Better Sex Education’ campaigns?

    I have not only supported all such campaigns for 30+ years but actively campaigned for improved sex and relationship education in schools and youth organisations. I have also personally delivered sex and relationship education in some schools, with very positive feedback from pupils, teachers and parents. Elsewhere I have written that any reduction in the age of consent must go hand-in-hand with earlier, better quality sex and relationship education to empower young people to make wise, responsible sexual and emotional choices – including the right to say ‘no’ to sex.

    2. How many under 16′s did Mr Tatchell discuss the age of consent with, before writing his opinion piece focused on the protection of children and young people from criminalisation?

    I have sought the opinion of about 400 to 500 young people under 16 and just over 16 in the last five years. I have also followed the surveys of young teens, where many of them have expressed the view that the age of consent of 16 is too high and that sex education is inadequate. One thing that prompted me to take up this human rights issue was a British Youth Council survey in the 1990s which found that 80% of young people thought 16 was too high. They favoured a reduction in the age of consent to end the criminalisation of consenting sexual relations involving under 16s.

    3. How would a change in the Age of Consent protect young people from sexual exploitation by older young people or adults?

    The age of consent does not stop peer pressure to have sex. It does not stop child sex abuse by adults. We have an age of consent of 16 but paedophiles ignore and violate it. In other words, the age of consent of 16 offers little protection. It is next to useless. All it does is criminalise tens of thousands of consenting under-age partners of similar ages. This is not protection; it’s persecution.

    The age of consent is a blunt instrument. If we want to protect young people from sex abuse, and I do, the way to do it is not by threatening them with arrest, but by giving them frank, good quality sex and relationship education. This should start from the first year of primary school onwards, with age-appropriate information about love, emotions, relationships and the physical changes they will experience at puberty.

    In secondary school, this information should become more explicit, giving pupils the knowledge, skills and confidence to make wise sexual and emotional decisions. This should include assertiveness training, to help them say no to unwanted sexual advances and to report sex abusers.

    Youngsters need to be advised how to negotiate safer sex, deal with sex pests and cope with relationship problems and break ups. They also need to know what to do if their partner refuses to use a condom, and the ABC of sustaining fulfilling relationships based on mutual consent and respect.

    Compared to the ineffective age of consent, this education and empowerment strategy is a much more effective way to encourage less risky sexual behaviour and to protect young people from peer pressure and paedophiles.

    In my article, I suggested that one option would be to keep the age of consent at 16 but have an explicit legal guarantee that there would be no crime committed providing both partners consent and there is no more than two or three years difference in their ages. This system operates in Germany, Israel and Switzerland.

    4. How many under 16′s have been criminalised for under age sex in the UK? (This information is likely available under a Freedom of Information request).

    All young people under 16 who have any form of sexual contact (even kissing and caressing) are criminalised. They are committing a serious criminal offence. It is punishable, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with a maximum of five years in a young offender’s institution and placement on the Sex Offenders Register – even if they are two 15 year olds with consent. This is abusive and offensive if their relationships are mutually consenting and without harm. The number of under 16s facing legal action is quite small but none should have to suffer this fate. Home Office statistics that I was given in the 1990s listed hundreds of arrests, cautions and prosecutions where young people were of roughly similar ages (the stats were not precise).

    As I said in my article: Any review of the consent laws should be premised on five aims. First, ending the criminalisation of consenting relationships between teens of similar ages. Second, protecting young people against sex abuse. Third, empowering them to make responsible sexual and emotional choices. Fourth, removing the legal obstacles to earlier, more effective sex and relationship education. Fifth, ensuring better contraception and condom provision to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions and to cut the spread of sexual infections like HIV.

  • TheRealThunderChild says:

    Mr Tatchel *criminalised* in this context means subject to prosecution , as well you know.
    You make a good point about the age of consent being a good negotiating tool, but since it’s overwhelming girls who face this pressure, surely that’s an argument for raising it?
    I’m not infavour of that BTW, but it occurs to me that lowering the age of consent would have catastrophic consequences of the very kind you posit otherwise.
    And , as a healthcare worker, I can tell you ADULTS frequently find it excruciating to seek sexual health advice, so clearly the age of consent is a strawman when arguing for better sex ed and access to healthcare.
    The permissiveness of the libertine would only benefit adult, exploitative , males. And this includes LGBT ones.

  • herbsandhags says:

    I think a glaring gap in Peter Tatchell’s argument, is the acknowledgement (or perhaps even the ignorance of) the incredible normality of coercion as a way of life in heterosexual sex. Do any pole of women about their sexual experiences as teens and you will find that a very large percentage of them have been either coerced, harassed or emotionally blackmailed into having sexual encounters they didn’t want (actually look on Mumsnet and you’ll find it happens quite often in adult heterosexual relationships as well).

    Peter’s solution to this is to teach teenagers to be more assertive. Right. So that puts the onus on the people who may be coerced, to stand up to that coercion. Where is the strategy to teach teenagers not to coerce in the first place? And let us be clear, we all know that in the main we are talking about boys coercing girls. (I don’t know enough about gay relationships to comment). Boys are taught that they are entitled to sexual access to girls (and later women) and girls are taught that they are sluts if they do and frigid if they don’t.

    Peter’s insistence on sorting out this sexual mess by assertiveness training as some kind of panacea is puzzling; it doesn’t address the behaviour which causes the need for assertiveness in the first place. The basic problem in heterosexual relationships is that men are taught that they have the right to have sex; Peter frames it as a basic human right. Well actually, if someone doesn’t want to have sex with you, you don’t have the right to have sex. If no one ever in your life ever wanted to have sex with you, you would have to live a celibate life, because other human beings are not there for your sexual use. That is something boys need to be taught. Girls are already taught that; in fact they’re taught that they are there for men’s sexual use. Peter doesn’t mention any of this, perhaps because he is unaware of it.

    This insistence on the need to teach assertiveness is just another, liberal version of “don’t wear a mini-skirt and then rape won’t happen to you”. “Be assertive and then rape won’t happen to you” is a touching faith in the power of the victim to stop rape (or coercion, or bullying or other sexual pressure) when it’s obvious that if victims were able to stop sexual abuse, they would have cracked it centuries ago. The way to stop sexual abuse isn’t by focusing on the behaviour of potential victims, it is by focusing on that of the potential perpetrators.

    That means teaching all teenagers that sex isn’t a right, it isn’t something anyone is entitled to, no matter how much you fancy someone, no matter how much kissing you’ve done, no matter how many “signals” they’ve sent you. And teaching them that they are responsible for ensuring that they don’t engage in abusive, non-consensual sex by not abusing, not coercing, pressuring, blackmailing or bullying anyone else into sex. Further we should be telling them what they should be expecting from a sexual partner: full, joyful, active participation in sex, not resignation, grudging acceptance, unhappy acquiescence – what our (man-made) law laughably defines as consent.

    Consent is too low a bar. All teenagers need to know this. They ‘re not going to learn it from assertiveness training.

  • Sam Barnett-Cormack says:

    Reflecting on all the arguments I’ve seen recently around the age of consent, I have some thoughts beginning to crystallise.

    Firstly, we know that prosecutions are not generally sought purely on the basis of age of consent when the parties are close in age. There’s a certain dishonesty in having laws that are routinely ignored in fairly well-defined cases; why not define those cases in law?

    Second, I’m not sure what age it would be, but I’m pretty sure there’s an age that we should restrict sexual activity below regardless of the relative ages of the parties involved.

    Thirdly, in practice the age of consent works as a an age over which the person can have sex with anyone else over that age, with only a cursory nod to concerns of power relationships for people age 16 or 17; I feel concerned that ‘proper adults’ usually represent a significant power imbalance when considered with 16 or 17 year olds.

    I would thus suggest, possibly just as a point for discussion, two levels of age of consent, explicitly in law. A lower age at which people can have sexual interactions with people close to them in age, assuming there are no complicating factors giving a cause for concern (many of which would also be concerning between ‘proper adults’, but there would be differences of course), and a higher age at which people are free to have sexual interactions with anyone over that age, or close to their own age.

    A law that is routinely not enforced in well-defined cases is a bad law.

  • TheRealThunderChild says:

    I’ve still to see a woman in favour of lowering the age of consent.
    Telling. That.

  • Michelle says:

    In a nutshell lowering the age of consent tips the balance of power in favour of those who want or feel entitled to have sex and unfortunately we live in a world where vulnerability can be taken as consent and the removal of innocence is seen as a desirable conquest. Sex and gender education still has a long way to go as is clearly shown by attitudes to rape, victim blaming, ‘slut shaming’, domestic violence,single parenthood, the list is nearly endless. How can we expect to burden our fourteen year old children with this extra responsibility if we don’t address our responsibilities first?

  • Hecuba says:

    If the age of consent were to be reduced to 14 this would be the beginning of a ‘very slippery slope’ wherein male libertarians would be calling for the age of consent to be reduced still further until we reach the stage wherein only babies are accorded right of not ‘consenting to male sexual coercion.’

    Missing from the call for age of consent to be reduced to 14 is that it would also affect boys and some homosexual adult males do prey on boys, therefore reducing the age of consent to 14 would enable these homosexual males to legally sexually prey on 14 year old boys. Is this what Tatchell wants?

    Tatchell I note like most men conveniently ignores the facts raised by Herbs and Hags that boys learn they have male pseudo sex right to female bodies and this pseudo male sex right is justified and condoned by mens’ laws on what they believe is and is not ‘male sexual violence against women and girls.’

    Tatchell we do not live in that utopia you are fortunate to inhabit because you are male – since men continue to deny women and girls their fundamental right of ownership of their bodies and sexual autonony. Men accord this right only to males which is why innumerable women and girls continue to be subjected to male sexual predators who are enacting the normal male sex script which is ‘male sex right to female bodies is sacrosanct.

    But as usual Tatchell like his fellow male rape apologists believes all that is required is for girls and women to be taught how to be self-assertive and magically male sexual predators will disappear. Tatchell you need to focus on the real issue which is pandemic male sexual violence against women and girls not campaigning for men’s right of sexual access to girls below the age of 14.

  • Thanks very much for the comments posted, which I have noted and mostly concur with. I think we have a large measure of agreement. It’s just that we express our shared concern to stop child sex abuse in different ways and with slightly different emphasis and solutions.

    My original article and previous reply cannot adequately cover my vast body of work on this issue for over 30 years. You have raised some valid issues that I have previously addressed elsewhere.

    Contrary to the suggestion by some, I am not “victim-blaming”. I do not do that. This is a misreading to my intention.

    To address some additional points put to me via email:

    1. Using data from the 1990’s to support a campaign for change in the 2010’s is problematic, to say the least. As with all changes of this type, we would expect up to date research data to be available in order to support any change in the law.

    The problem is that the Home Office no longer provides statistics like it used to. But I am regularly contacted by distressed parents whose children have been arrested, cautioned / convicted and put on the sex offender’s register for sex with a partner of a similar age. Overall, the numbers are small but this should not be happening at all. Even if few under-16 teens get into trouble with the law for sex with other teens of a similar age, this is wrong. Labeling over half the teenage population as sex criminals (for under age sex), which is what the Sexual Offences Act 2003 does, is very offensive.

    2. Using the word ‘paedophile’ is unacceptable when discussing the issue of child sexual abuse. We have written a detailed explanation as to why this is, available via this link.

    I don’t use the term paedophile in the way you object to. I use it in accordance with the correct definition. I used it because the debate was initially referencing adults who prey on teens and children. I am also aware of sex abuse by people of similar ages. I oppose that too.

    3. Girls are telling organisations that the AoC helps them manage peer pressure. We as an organisation are focused on listening to those most likely to be affected by any change in the law.

    Yes, I am conscious of this and accept the view expressed by many girls. I just don’t think that the age of consent is an adequate protection. Quite clearly many abusers ignore it. Our consent at 16 law is violated all the time by abusers. Relying on the age of consent is often an alibi used by society to wash its hands of more serious and sustained action against child sex abuse.

    4. Use of the term persecution is interesting – we could not find any evidence of teens being persecuted. We appreciate you have data from the 1990’s, but data that could be 20+ years old has limited relevance in this case.

    The law brands teens of similar ages having consensual sex as sex criminals. That’s what the laws says. Even if the law is rarely enforced, this is a form persecution in a legal sense. How would you feel if your consenting behaviour was branded criminal, even it was hardly ever applied against you? I hope you’d be outraged to be treated in that way. The old laws against LGBT people were, for example, rarely enforced from the late 1990s, but until they were repealed in 2003 this amounted to legal persecution – and most people accepted that these were persecutory laws.

    5. Assertiveness training does not stop children, young people or adults being abused. This is the language of ignorance. It suggests that ‘if only victims had been able to say no more firmly’. We are sure this wasn’t your intention, but this makes our point of how victim blaming is insidious and difficult to recognise.

    With respect, this is not victim-blaming in either intention or fact. Given the failure of the age of consent to stop abusers, we have to find other strategies. I have long argued that schools should challenge the sexist macho male culture that underpins a lot of abuse by boys and men. We need education against machismo and sexism in our schools. I have always urged that these male attitudes should be addressed. As we know, some sex abuse is forced. But most teen sex abuse is not coercive. It involves pressure, grooming and manipulation to get the young person to let sex happen. Often young people say they didn’t feel strong and confident enough to say no – or to report abuse. They wished they’d had the strength and confidence to say no and report abusers. This is what many young people say. I am listening to them. That’s why I argue that education and empowerment is a valuable, effective additional way to tackle abuse. In my view, it is not victim-blaming to want to give young people the knowledge, skills and confidence to say no to unwanted sex and to report abusers.

    6. Sex pests – please refer to 2, above. Child sexual abusers are not ‘sex pests’. This is othering language and is very damaging to survivors of sexual abuse.

    With respect, I never said sex pests are the same as child sex abusers. Sex pests are people who pester (harass) others for sex – and I was using it to mean that kind of behaviour.

    7. Your use of the Sexual Offences Act is disingenuous at best. The law is in place to protect children and young people both from abusive adults and from other abusive young people. It is a blunt instrument unfortunately; however all cases of these type have to pass the public interest test. We’d be interested in accurate, recent data that would prove that ‘all under 16’s having any form of sexual contact are criminalised’. We don’t believe that this has any basis in fact.

    Criminalisation means labeling acts as crimes, regardless of whether the law is actually applied. The SOA 2003 is very clear in labeling all under 16’s having any form of sexual contact as serious sex criminals and liable to detention and placement on the sex offender’s register. That’s what the law says, even if the partners consent and are of similar ages. I believe it is wrong to label these teens in this way.

    More than 15 European countries have ages of consent lower than 16.I am not aware of any evidence that this results in more rape or child sex abuse.

    I hope this clarifies. Solidarity! Peter

    Despite some differences I think we are on the same page in wanting to protect young people from sex abuse.

    Best wishes in the work that you do.

  • Redskies says:

    “Given the failure of the age of consent to stop abusers, we have to find other strategies.”

    I see – rather than enforce the age of consent laws against abusers, enshrine in law “Romeo & Juliet” provisions to remove the more serious consequences of underage but consensual sex on teenagers, and put serious effort into sex education around consent, you think that the best alternative strategy is to remove the only (albeit not totally successful) legal protection children have from sexual predators.

    And then you seem to be claiming that lowering the age of consent will not result in more sexual abuse of children. Because, having made them legally vulnerable, we as a society will somehow imbue them with a magical ability to withstand the power and manipulation of predatory adults. A magical power which even adults all too frequently lack.

    You and I are definitely not on the same page, Mr Tatchell. The best thing I can think about you is that you are illogical and do not understand the real life consequences of your proposals but the more you discuss this, the harder I find it to believe of you.

  • Hecuba says:

    Mr. Tatchell states this in his response:

    ‘As we know, some sex abuse is forced. But most teen sex abuse is not coercive. It involves pressure, grooming and manipulation to get the young person to let sex happen. Often young people say they didn’t feel strong and confident enough to say no – or to report abuse. They wished they’d had the strength and confidence to say no and report abusers. This is what many young people say. I am listening to them. That’s why I argue that education and empowerment is a valuable, effective additional way to tackle abuse. In my view, it is not victim-blaming to want to give young people the knowledge, skills and confidence to say no to unwanted sex and to report abusers.’

    Coercion means manipulation and pressure as Mr. Tatchell rightly stated so therefore ‘coercion’ is coercion full stop. Just because a male sexual predator does not enact physical violence against his female victim it does not mean the male sexual predator did not force the female victim to submit to his sexual demands.

    Mr. Tatchell female victims of male sexual predators ‘do not let sex happen’ rather the male sexual predator(s) forces the female victim to submit – note I say submit not ‘let sex happen!’ By the way whenever a male sexual predators forces a female victim to submit she is not ‘having sex’ rather the male is raping her/using her for his sexual pleasure. ‘Sex’ is what male sexual predators believe they are enacting when in reality these male sexual predators are using the female victim(s) as disposable masturbatory objects.

    Perhaps male victims of male physical assault ‘lets the violent male subject them to physical assault’ rather than the male perpetrator commits physical violence against the male victim.

    Mr. Tatchell you are attempting to minimalise the common strategies male sexual predators employ to gain pseudo male sex right to females.

    The law concerning 16 being the age of ‘consent’ does not in itself magically prevent determined male sexual predators from preying on girls and to a much lesser extent boys. However, this law sends the specific message that males including teen boys do not have the sacrosanct right of male sexual access to girls under the age of 16. Lowing the age to 14 sends the clear message to male sexual predators they have legal right of sexually preying on under age girls because these male sexual predators know it will be the female victims on trial not them!

    Mr. Tatchell clearly believes that lowering the age of consent (a gift to male sexual predators) and teaching girls how to act assertive will magically erase males sexually preying on girls. Yes we do need to teach girls they are not responsible whenever a male decides to act on his pseudo male sex right to female bodies but at the same time we must ensure girls are not taught it is their fault if they don’t enact sufficient assertiveness to the male sexual predator because his accountability is supposedly irrelevant!

    Does teaching ‘assertiveness’ also apply to girls under the age of 12? Because Mr. Tatchell is missing one vital point and that is female children do not have the power and authority adult males are accorded. Children are not adults but expecting female children to ‘enact assertiveness’ which neatly deflects accountability away from the male sexual predators is colluding with male sexual predators’ common excuses and pseudo justifications.

    Spain is about to raise the ‘age of consent to 16’ and the reason is because unlike Mr. Tatchell, Spain’s government rightly believes 12 is too young since female children do not have the power adult men and teen boys over the age of 16 are automatically accorded.

    Yet here in the UK male clamour to lower age of consent continues to be uttered. One has to ask why is it overwhelmingly adult men demanding the age of consent be lowered and not adult women? You Mr. Tatchell are not the lone male voice calling for this reduction because your male cohorts remain hidden and you are their spokesman literally.