Age of Consent

Argus title : Our children need us to nurture and protect them

Our collective past is full of heroines that history has tended to ignore. Josephine Butler was one such woman.

In the 1870s, Josephine Butler campaigned for repeal of legislation which required prostitutes to undergo forceable examination and treatment for venereal disease, while making no such demand upon their clients.

It’s a cause for celebration that her achievements are beginning to appear in school history books. However, what is rarely mentioned there is that Butler was the key architect of the present age of consent – a fact of far greater relevance to adolescents than the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Thousands of the prostitutes Butler met were children, who were prized both by paedophiles and other men who had no great preference for children but thought they were less likely to be infected with syphilis.

With the age of consent set at 12 and many children born into dire poverty, there was a ready supply of new flesh for the nation’s gentlemen, tradesmen and armed forces. Some supplied the home market while others were sold into what was then known as the ‘white slave trade’. Today we would call it sex trafficking.

Josephine Butler, whose only daughter had died tragically, threw herself into campaigning to protect these children. It was she, above all others, who in 1875 persuaded the Government to raise the female age of consent to 13 and then finally in 1885 to 16.

By making it a crime to have sexual relations with a child under 16, she protected many thousands of children who would have been driven by poverty or ignorance to ‘consent’ to sex. The law is clear that no child is able to give informed consent and that therefore any sexual intercourse with such a child is an offence.

One hundred and twenty years later, we need another Josephine Butler, for the age of consent is under attack. Child prostitution in Britain is increasing and the sexual trafficking of children is acknowledged by both the British Government and the European parliament to be a serious problem.

Britain now has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe at 42.8 conceptions for every 1,000 girls under 18. That is 5 times the rate in the Netherlands, twice that of Germany and 3 times that of France. According to the Guardian this week, there are areas of Britain in which 1 in 10 teenage girls becomes pregnant.

Modern media and the fashion, cosmetic and music industries deliberately promote a highly sexualised image of prepubescent and teenage girls. Song lyrics, books and teen magazines, films and clothes are increasingly sexually explicit, encouraging young boys to present as macho and sexually rapacious and young girls as ‘jail bait’ for older males.

While successive governments have retained the law on consent, its institutions have undermined it by treating adolescents as if they were adults.

Social Services Departments and the Police have for years turned a blind eye to sexual ‘relationships’ between men in their 30s and girls in their early teens – provided that girls say they consent and parents don’t object. Bill Wyman’s affair with the 13 year old Mandy Smith was just the most high profile example.

Now the Child Support Agency has confirmed that teenage boys who father children while unable to give informed consent will still be held legally responsible for that child’s maintenance once they are out of full time education.

It is often suggested that ‘consensual’relationships between young people close in age should be acceptable. In fact, patterns of school bullying reveal that even small differences in age can bring huge variations in power when people are very young. And the relations between young males and females in our society are frequently abusive.

One in 4 rapes recorded by the police has a victim under 16. And Home Office figures show that over a third of those who sexually offend against children are under 18.

A teen magazine “Bliss” recently reported a survey of 2000 readers which revealed that 22% of 14 year olds had had sexual intercourse. Of these 1 in 4 said they had been forced.

The teen magazine “Sugar” published a survey of 2000 young girls (13-19) which revealed that 1 in 6 had been hit by boyfriends, 4% of them regularly.

An NSPCC survey of 2,869 18 – 24 year olds found that most perpetrators of sexual abuse are likely to be close in age to the victim and described as a ‘boyfriend’. It also found that coercive sexual activity usually occurs first between the ages of 13 – 15 and that around 3 quarters of the victims are girls.

Over the years salacious tabloid coverage of ‘teen totty’ and ‘gymslip mums’ has undermined the law and created a climate in which teenagers can be treated as fair game.

In August 2003 Channel 4 launched a ‘debate’ on the age of consent. The clear agenda was to reduce the age of consent to 14 or even 12.

Now, under the guise of public service broadcasting, the BBC is publicising the case of three sisters of 12, 14 and 16, all of whom have become mothers. The family will feature in the BBC3 series “Desperate Midwives: The real truth about childbirth”.

The BBC film has encouraged and given legitimacy to irresponsible and prurient tabloid coverage of teenage pregnancy. Although the girls are still children and all conceived under the age of consent, there has been no attempt to protect their identity. It is as if the fact of their pregnancy denies them their rights as children.
The girls’ mother, who allowed her 11 year old daughter to have sex with a 14 year old boyfriend in her house, has been widely ridiculed by a salivating press for her comment: “I blame the schools – sex education for young girls should be better.”
Ludicrous though her views are, they simply echo the conventional wisdom of many professional agencies and politicians. On television news a pregnancy service representative commenting about her case said something very similar.
The general consensus seems to be that teenage pregnancy is best avoided, not by delaying penetrative sex until after the age of consent, but by increasing information about contraception and hoping that children will delay sexual activity.

Beverley Hughes the new Minister for Children this week effectively passed back to parents responsibility for informing young people about sex. However, she did not give any guidance about the information to give.

This is despite the fact that many of the present generation of parents were themselves starved of information or experienced abusive or exploitative relationships. As a consequence they may have woefully reactionary attitudes to sexual relations.

Ms Hughes has given no guidance about the age of consent, saying only that she will not “encourage parents to advocate abstinence”. But the law does require “abstinence” in children under 16.

Hughes’ Press Office was able to confirm that there are no government plans to amend the age of consent. However, when I suggested that the aim might be to leave the legislation on the statute book but de facto treat the age of consent as 13, I couldn’t get a straight reply.

At the risk of sounding like a some south coast Melanie Phillips, it seems to me that we have trapped our children in a libertarian quagmire. We are so fearful of appearing sexually repressive, that we expose them to danger. We are so squeamish that we can’t talk about the relative risks of different sexual activities.

It is known that, apart from early pregnancy, penetrative sex brings with it huge risks to health. These include Chlamydia, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis and increased risk of cervical cancer. Early use of oral contraceptives can lead to long term loss of libido and other health difficulties.

If we lived in an ideal world in which relations between the sexes were equal, in which children were respected and nurtured, paedophilia, domestic violence, bullying and child sexual abuse did not exist and poverty had been eradicated, I might have some sympathy for those who advocate lowering the age of consent for non-penetrative sex for young people of similar age.

The harsh reality is that social relations in the world in which we live between age groups and the sexes are so distorted that this would be an invitation to abuse.

Adolescence is not adulthood, but is the last wonderful flowering of childhood. It is a brief period of time in which children should safely be able to observe, explore and care for their own bodies as they develop towards maturity. It should surely be our responsibility as adults to nurture it and keep it safe.

Sixteen years is, after all, a very short time.

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