At the sex ed training workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago, the first session contained quite a lot of discussion about what the age of consent might be. It's a common belief that it's 16 for both/all genders, and indeed that's used as a benchmark even if you're not sure. To avoid prosecution and all.
I don't think this is too young, and I certainly don't think it's too old. The problem I do have with the age of consent is that it's somewhat unspecified. Like most of the British constitution, it's not codified in any particularly distributed way, and I (for what it's worth) wasn't taught it at school - until it was mentioned in passing by a teacher when I was in year 7.
Year 7. I was 12 when I head the first mention of an age of consent. 12 years old and I hadn't heard of it. I hadn't even thought of it beforehand. Because nobody had mentioned it.
Insofar as the age of consent is concerned, at the workshop it was generally agreed that 16 is the most commonly cited age, but there's also an idea behind "cognitive ability to consent" that falls around the age of 12 or 13, at which a child is meant to understand the implications around consenting to sex, the risks implicit within, and all other factors. (The pleasure involved with sex wasn't mentioned, but I'm assuming that too.) I don't know if this is part of the law or not - I'm not a lawyer - but what was implied at the workshop was that it is, in fact, legal to consent to sex under the age of 16. It's if you actually do or not, and who you do it with, that is a legal thing.
Sounds incredibly vague, right? Of course. The age of consent is vague. I've always thought it's vague, and too far so to actually be thrown at you and taken as gospel. By the end of the first session at that workshop, we were all pretty much in agreement that two 14-year-olds could be legally having sex with each other and anyone wishing to prosecute wouldn't have a leg to stand on. This was a helpful view for later workshops, such as my own on sex and religion, in which we discussed the religious implications of under-16 sex.
I don't want to condone or disparage this idea - as far as I'm aware, your sex life if your own business and, unless you want to share it in a public forum like I do here, it should remain so. But I am aware, in many cases, of people - friends and others - who have had sex before the age of 16 while still being aware that they may have been acting outside the law, for various reasons... including wanting to have sex before the turn of the Millennium, being in a relationship for years and not wanting to wait any longer, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol... or just feeling that they are ready.
Which, again, I'm fine with.
The idea gets lost somewhere when one party involved is over the age of consent and one is below - Stu makes a good point on his blog entry about old men/young girls. I think it's accepted and acknowledged that this could be classed as assault. But what about a pair who are 15/16? Legally, there's a case there. But seriously? Is anyone going to take issue with this?
A large amount of the problem comes when there's an assumption that sex under 16 is non-consensual, because that's... well... rape. But talk to the people involved and you may find that it was, in fact, with consent. Or not. You won't know if you don't ask.
The suggestion in the news at the moment that 15 should be debated at a new age of consent - proposed by John Ashton and rejected, predictably, by David Cameron - comes after a claim that a third of British teenagers under 16 are, or have, having or had sex. This doesn't surprise me. What does is that there's still an assumption that a lower age of consent would make it easier for young people to get sexual health advice from the NHS.
You should get sexual health advice fron the NHS at any age.
I agree with many of the points he's making. Yes, we do need open discussion in a fre environment to encourage sexual discourse and security. Yes, we are getting inaccurate representations of sex in pornography (although not all porn - this is tackled, brilliantly, in feature film Don Jon. Yes, countries with a lower age of consent (Italy, Spain, many parts of Japan, Sweden...) do show, statistically, that teenage pregnancy and sexual activity in the underage is also at a lower rate.
But the main point - again! - comes back to sex education. If there's an idea that you need to be at the age of consent to get sexual advice from the NHS (or any other sources), then there's something wrong here. We have sex education in schools and sites like Justin Hancock's BISH available and yet the message still isn't getting out there if there's something as radical as a change to the (admittedly vague) age of consent in order to combat poor education!
Nick Clegg's statement that a blanket reduction in the age of consent isn't an answer to the "difficult dilemma" is something I understand - although he should have gone on to mention that we need higher standards in sex ed. Nevertheless, I agree with Nick.
This isn't to say that I wouldn't support a lower age of consent (especially if this involved clarification of the actual law) - of course I would! When I was 14, I'd have liked nothing better than the idea that I could have sex! But it's not an answer, and it's nothing like enough. Until we get better sex ed, the message that it's out there to access for free without any problems, and less of a stigma over giving this information to young people, we're still going to have a problem.