In 16th-century England, the age of consent was set at 10 years old in an effort to protect young girls from sexual abuse by adult men. In 1875, parliament raised the age of consent to 13; in 1885, it upped it to 16. Now, a leading public health advocate has proposed that the United Kingdom bring the age down again in light of the high proportion of British adolescents who are having sex—with one another—before they’re legally capable of granting consent.
Lowering the age of consent to 15 (where it stands in Sweden) or 14 (where it’s set in Germany and Italy) would “take these enormous pressures off children and young people” who feel they need to hide their sexual activity, said John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health. Concern over running afoul of the law prevents sexually active teenagers from seeking help from adults when they need it, Ashton said. The policy shift would better empower teachers and other supervising adults to provide sexual health education and contraception access to 14- and 15-year-old students. Said Ashton: “They are doing it, and we need to be able to support them and protect them.”
The argument for relaxing age of consent laws is typically focused on protecting older sex partners, who can be aggressively prosecuted for having sex with (sometimes, only slightly) younger people. In 2007, Slate’s Will Saletan argued that when it comes to sex involving minors, “the ages of the parties vary widely from case to case,” and in courtrooms across the United States, “horny teenagers are being thrown in with pedophiles.” He added: “Having sex at 12 is a bad idea. But if you’re pubescent, it might be, in part, your bad idea. Conversely, having sex with a 12-year-old, when you’re 20, is scummy. But it doesn’t necessarily make you the kind of predator who has to be locked up.”
Defending a 20-year-old’s right to have sex with a 12-year-old is unlikely to make a very powerful case for relaxing age of consent laws. (After all, “pubescent” does not equal “mentally mature,” and “is scummy” and “should be locked up” are not mutually exclusive concepts.) But Ashton is making a different argument, and his focus on the health and wellness of sexually active minors (and not the scummy adults who hope to join in) is worth further consideration.
Sex among minors is so seriously policed that it can be difficult for adults to even discuss it with tweens and teens before they reach the legal threshold. But in order for public health outreach to work, it needs to reach kids and adolescents before they actually start having sex. And framing early sexual experiences as against the law—and potentially against the will of both sex partners—doesn’t provide the best framework for establishing healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors throughout life.
Some public advocates against lowering the age in the United Kingdom have argued that the main problem is the simple lack of comprehensive sex education for younger students, which could be remedied without touching the age of consent law. Others have said that relaxing the age of consent would make adolescents more vulnerable to sexual abuse: “Predatory adults would be given legitimacy to focus their attentions on even younger teenagers, and there is a real risk that society would be sending out the message that sex between 14- to 15-year-olds is also acceptable,” said Liz Dux, a lawyer who has represented sex abuse victims of British broadcaster Jimmy Savile. But lowering the age of consent wouldn’t prevent the U.K. from prohibiting sexual contact between people of considerable age differences. Communicating an acceptance of sex between two 14-year-olds is much, much different than legitimizing contact between a 14-year-old and a predatory adult. Maybe the law should reflect that distinction—in the U.K. and here.