Age of consent reform in the United Kingdom
The examples and perspective in this article may not include all significant viewpoints. (August 2015)
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Restrictions on sexual activity involving children in the United Kingdom and its predecessors have existed since medieval times. During the 1970s, there was some political advocacy in favour of significantly reducing the age of consent which was driven to a notable extent by those with an interest in sexually abusing children. Meanwhile, over a similar time period, the unequal age of consent for straight and gay young people was campaigned against by the LGBT rights movement. More recently arguments have occasionally been made in favour of reducing the age of consent, generally to an earlier point in adolescence.
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.
The decriminalisation of sex between men over the age of 21 convinced some paedophiles that they might soon be able to change the law and social attitudes to allow for their desire to have sex with children. The Paedophile Information Exchange was an organisation with around 300 members which used its links inside government and the civil liberties movement to lobby for the decriminalisation of sex with children as young as four years old. Arguments around relaxing age of consent laws relating to adolescents in particular did also have a wider reach. 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.
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 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.
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.
More recent arguments
By the end of 20th century, those in favour of reducing the age of consent faster were pointing to faster physical development and increasing levels of sexual activity among adolescents as reasoning. More generally in academic work, particularly in sociology, writing on human sexual behaviour debated prohibitions on sexual activity involving children.
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".
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 showed that by the early 2000s in 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 in the 1990s, "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".
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.
- Adolescent sexuality in the United Kingdom
- Age of consent reform in Canada
- Ages of consent in Europe
- French petitions against age of consent laws
- Statutory rape
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- Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., pp. 132-133, 220)
- Williams, Clifford (2021) Courage to Be: Organised Gay Youth in England 1967-1990. The Book Guild Ltd. ISBN 9781913913632
- Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., pp. 132 and 243, Note 6.6)
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- Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., p.132).
- Waites, Matthew (2005, p.132).
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- Sexual Offences: Evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, NCCL report no. 13, February 1976, p.6. (London: National Council for Civil Liberties).
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- Waites, Matthew. (2005, pp. 212-214 and 220).
- 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).
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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.
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- 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).
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- 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).
- Martin, Nicole (29 November 2000). "Girls say teenage sex campaign is 'out of touch'". The Daily Telegraph. London.
- Sexual Age Of Consent Will Not Be Lowered To 14, Insists David Cameron. HuffPost. Published 11 January 2013. Last updated 13 March 2013.