Age of consent reform in the United Kingdom
The examples and perspective in this article may not include all significant viewpoints. (August 2015)
Since the 1970s, a number of movements have taken place in the United Kingdom in favour of reforming or abolishing the age of consent, in support of children's rights, gay liberationism or, more recently, "as a means to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections via education and health promotion".
In 1275, the first age of consent was set in England, at age 12 (Statute of Westminster I). In 1875, the Offences Against the Person Act raised the age to 13 in Great Britain and Ireland, and ten years later the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 raised it to 16. In 1917, a bill raising the age of consent in Great Britain and Ireland from 16 to 17 was defeated by only one vote.
In 1950, the Parliament of Northern Ireland passed the Children and Young Persons Act, which successfully raised the age of consent to 17. However, in 2008 this enactment was reversed by the British government in the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, which made the age of consent in Northern Ireland 16, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. The reason given for this Order being made was to bring the age of consent into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Criminal Justice Minister, Paul Goggins, said there was no compelling reason for the age to be different in Northern Ireland.
The male homosexual age of consent in the United Kingdom was set at 21 in the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report), then lowered to 18 in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and finally lowered to 16 in England & Wales and Scotland in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000.
Currently, the age of consent for penetrative sex, oral sex and mutual masturbation in the United Kingdom is 16 years. If any individual has sex with someone under this age, then he or she may be charged with a criminal offence and may receive a 14-year prison sentence or if they are under 18 a 5-year prison sentence. Similarly, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 prohibits a person in a position of trust from performing sexual acts with someone who cannot consent, which includes minors and "very vulnerable people". It is primarily used for the protection of those who are above the age of consent but under the age of 18, or who have mental disabilities.
In April 1972, the Society of Friends Social Responsibility Council (a Quaker conference), passed a resolution in favour of lowering the age of consent in Britain from 16 to 14. In July of that year, Dr. John Robinson, Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, and chair of the UK's Sexual Law Reform Society, defended an age of consent of 14 in a lecture at a Methodist Conference.
Political parties and advocacy groupsEdit
In May 1974, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality suggested a basic age of consent of 16, but that could be as low as 12 "in cases where a defendant could prove the existence of meaningful consent". The Sexual Law Reform Society proposed in September of that year lowering the age of consent to 14, with the requirement that below the age of 18 the burden of proof that consent for sexual activities between the parties existed would be the responsibility of the older participant.
In March 1976, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), called for an equal age of consent of 14, or 10, in Britain. The submission to the Criminal Law Revision Committee generated extensive newspaper coverage. While the report recognised the merits of abolishing the age of consent, it proposed retaining a prohibition on sex under the age of 14 "as a compromise with public attitudes", stating that "although it is both logical and consistent with modern knowledge about child development, to suggest that the age of consent should be abolished, we fear that, given the present state of public attitudes on this topic, it will not be politically possible to abolish the age of consent". They also argued that "childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage" and suggested that more harm was caused when the children retold their experiences in court or to the press. The submission was signed by Harriet Harman, who was a legal officer for the NCCL at the time before becoming an MP in 1982. Harman denies ever supporting the age of consent being lowered to 10, and claimed that right-wing newspapers The Daily Mail and The Telegraph had tried to make her "guilty by association" with fringe groups that had previously been connected to the NCCL.
In November 2000, an internet poll of 42,000 girls aged 12 to 16 was conducted. "Nine out of 10 respondents did not believe in waiting until marriage to have sex, while 87 per cent said the age of consent should be lowered from 16. Sex education was criticised as out-dated, uninformative and taught too late, with little structured literature about sexually transmitted diseases, same-sex relationships and how to deal with pregnancy". Those surveyed also said that free condoms should be provided in girls toilets and that the £60 million drive by the government to half teenage conceptions would have been better spent on clinics for young people wanting confidential advice.
Contemporary arguments for lowering the age of consent in the United Kingdom do not necessarily comprise values like individual freedom or children's rights. Specifically, they tend to focus on a pragmatic analysis of a new situation, including puberty at earlier ages, a higher proportion of young people sexually active below the age of consent and a trend to negotiate sexual behavior in secrecy in certain age groups. Sociologist Matthew Waites, author of The age of Consent – Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship, observed that:
By the mid-1970s the case for a lower minimum age for all was finding wider support, with questions being posed concerning the merits of lowering the legal age for male/female sexual behaviour – not only within grassroots sexual movements, but also within religious organisations and liberal intellectual circles. [...] Significant sections of liberal opinion in the political mainstream, including prominent campaigners for children’s interests and sexual health, support at least some selective decriminalisation of sexual activity between young people under 18.
More generally in academic work, particularly in sociology, recent writing on human sexual behaviour from various perspectives has questioned the extent of prohibitions on sexual activity involving children.
On 17 October 2010, on the BBC's Sunday Morning Live program, the viewing public was asked for their text poll, "Should the age of consent be lowered to 13?" At the end of the program it was announced that 16% voted yes and 84% voted no.
In November 2013, a leading public health expert and Faculty of Public Health president, Professor John Ashton, called for the age of consent to be lowered to 15. He said that the current legal limit prevented sexually active younger teenagers from getting support with issues of disease and contraception. He said that official figures indicated as many as a third of all 14- and 15-year-olds are having sex in Britain and said that a nationwide debate was needed to discuss the benefits of lowering the present age of consent of 16. The call was rejected by then Prime Minister David Cameron and then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that same year.
Research by Jean Golding shows that puberty is occurring earlier than in the 1970s, with an average age of menarche in girls now at 12 years and 10 months, compared to the average age of 14 for puberty in general that was accepted as evidence by the Policy Advisory Committee of the 1970s. Golding's research has found that "one girl in six hits puberty at the age of eight".
According to British research conducted by the Centre for Family and Household Research, "an increasing proportion of young people are sexually active below the age of consent". Additionally, the UK's first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL), which collected data up to 1990, found that a high proportion of young people engage in other forms of sexual activity prohibited by the law, including mutual masturbation and oral sex, beginning on average at the age of 14.
Waites also observed that "qualitative research reveals a picture of many young people negotiating sexual behaviour in a context of secrecy, constrained by power relationships while lacking confidence, resources and support". He added, "It is argued by some sexual health professionals that the age of consent should be lowered [...] to facilitate more effective support from health and education services".
Peter Tatchell, British gay activist and author, has defended an age of consent of 14 in Britain since the mid-1990s, repeating the arguments presented in the 1970s by the NCCL and the Sexual Law Reform Society. He cited Romeo and Juliet, aged 14 and 13, as "one of the greatest love stories of all time".
Although he does not favour total abolition, Francis Bennion, a British liberal humanist also influenced by the historical context of the issue, emphasised the fact that children are "sexual beings", concluding that this in itself makes legal prohibitions unfair.
Miranda Sawyer, British journalist specialised in music and youth culture, suggested that "we have sexual feelings from a very early age", considering that sex is "natural behaviour". She favoured lowering the age of consent to 12 in the UK while labeling the criminalisation of sexual activity under the age of 16 as "laughably unrealistic".
- Waites, Matthew. The Age of Consent – Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship (2005, pp. 122 and 220). New York/London: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-2173-4. ISBN 1-4039-2173-3.
- Matthew Waites (15 August 2009). The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-23718-6. (Google books link)
- Robertson, Stephen. "Age of Consent Laws (Teaching Module)". Children & Youth in History. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Archived from the original on 27 September 2020. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
- Mary E. Odem (1995). Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Gender and American Culture). Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-8078-4528-8. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
- David Swarbrick. "Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (-)". swarb.co.uk. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
- Age of consent: A response to the consultation on the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 (PDF). Northern Ireland, United Kingdom: Christian Institute. ISBN 978-1-901086-39-3. Retrieved 9 November 2015.
- "House of Lords - Merits of Statutory Instruments - Nineteenth Report". parliament.uk. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
- "The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008". Opsi.gov.uk. 2 September 2013. Archived from the original on 16 December 2008. Retrieved 2014-05-17.
- "NI age of consent to be lowered". BBC News. 20 November 2007.
- "Gay consent at 16 becomes law". BBC News. 20 November 2000. Retrieved 25 August 2011.
- "Age Of Consent". BBC Radio 1. BBC. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
- "understanding sexual offence reform". Jubilee-centre.org. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
- "Explanatory Notes to Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000". www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 25 May 2018.
- G.R. No. 126545 retrieved 29 January 2012
- Waites, Matthew (2005, p.132).
- "Quakers make 13 age of consent", Sunday Express, 16 April 1972.
- "Dr. Robinson puts case for age of consent to be 14", The Times, 6 July 1972; "Consent to what?", editorial, New Law Journal, vol. 122, no. 5554, 13 July 1972, pp.621-622.
- Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., pp. 132 and 243, Note 6.6)
- Gay News, no. 46, 9 May 1974, p.3 – 'CHE Report angers reformers'.
- Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., p.132).
- Mason, Rowena (25 February 2014). "Harman v Daily Mail: claims and counterclaims over NCCL's link to PIE". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 September 2018.
- Waites, Matthew (2005, p.135-136). The age of consent – Young people, Sexuality and Citizenship. New York/London: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-2173-4. ISBN 1-4039-2173-3.
- Sexual Offences: Evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, NCCL report no. 13, February 1976, p.6. (London: National Council for Civil Liberties).
- Beckford, Martin (9 March 2009). "Harriet Harman under attack over bid to water down child pornography law". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 21 April 2013. Retrieved 11 July 2020.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
- Martin, Nicole (29 November 2000). "Girls say teenage sex campaign is 'out of touch'". The Daily Telegraph. London.
- Waites, Matthew. (2005, pp. 212-214 and 220).
- Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., pp. 132-133, 220)
- "Sunday Morning Live - Episode 14". BBC. 17 October 2010. Archived from the original on 17 October 2010. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
- Withnall, Adam (17 November 2013). "Health expert calls for age of consent to be lowered to 15". The Independent. Retrieved 4 July 2020.
- "PM rejects call to lower age of consent to 15". BBC News. 17 November 2013. Archived from the original on 4 May 2015. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
The prime minister has rejected a call from a leading expert on public health to lower the age of consent to 15. Faculty of Public Health president Prof John Ashton said society had to accept that about a third of all boys and girls were having sex at 14 or 15. [...] Downing Street said the current age of 16 was in place to protect children and there were "no plans to change it".
- Waites, Matthew. (2005, p. 212).
- The UK’s Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences was created in December 1975, by Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary of the British government, with the specific task of examining the law on the age of consent. Sources: Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., p.133); Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences (PAC, June 1979, p. iii) – Working Party on the Age of Consent in Relation to Sexual Offences (London:HMSO).
- Waites, Matthew. (2005, pp. 212 and 246, Note 9.1).
- ‘One girl in six hits puberty by age of eight’, The Observer, 18 June 2000, pp.1-2; ‘Too much too young’, The Observer, 18 June 2000, Review, pp.1, 4; ‘Sex from 8 to 18’, UK’s Channel Four, Tuesday 27 June 2000, 9 p.m.
- Wertheimer, A. and Macrae, S. (1999, p.19). Family and Household Change in Britain: A Summary of Findings from Projects in the Economic and Social Research Council Population and Household Change Programme (Oxford: Centre for Family and Household Research, Oxford Brookes University). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p.214).
- Johnson, A.M.; Wadsworth, J.; Wellings, K.; and Field, J. with Bradshaw, S. (1994) – Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p.214).
- Waites, Matthew. (2005, p. 213).
- Holland, J.; Ramazanoglu, C.; Sharpe, S.; and Thomson, R. (1998) – The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power (London: Tufnell Press). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p. 213).
- Waites, Matthew (2005, p. 213).
- Waites, Matthew (2005, pp. 220 and 222).
- Tatchell, Peter (1996) – "Is Fourteen Too Young for Sex?", Gay Times, June, pp. 36-38; Tatchell, Peter (2002) – "Why the Age of Consent in Britain Should be Lowered to Fourteen", Legal Notes 38 (London: Libertarian Alliance).
- Bennion, Francis (2003, p.13) – Sexual Ethics and Criminal Law: A Critique of the Sexual Offences Bill 2003 (Oxford: Lester Publishing). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p.220 and 222).
- Sawyer, Miranda (2 November 2003). "Sex is not just for grown-ups". The Observer. Archived from the original on 23 May 2015. Retrieved 4 July 2020.