Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Why lowering the age of consent is failed liberalism

Serial offender: Jimmy Savile

The president of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor John Ashton, thinks that society sends out mixed signals about sex to our young teenagers. Statistics show that a third of 15-year-olds are sexually active, but are deterred from seeking sexual health advice because the legal limit is 16. Making the legal age 15 would remove the social barrier to advice and "draw a line in the sand" against sex at 14, or younger.

Also, he says, since society has failed to tackle the 'sexualisation of children' through advertising and the media, refusing to lower the age limit is society burying its head in the sand.

That's one – or two – ways of looking at it. But it's surprising the old chestnut of the 'age of consent' has reared its head again after two solid years of abuse and exploitation cases pursuing celebrities and institutions right into the courts for sexual offences against children. Including offences, with or without 'consent'.

We've been living in a storm of rumour, allegation and then charges. The subject of child sex abuse, the molestation and rape of vulnerable young people in care and out of it, has never been more visible.

In the mindset of those advocating a lowering of the age of consent – or what they seek to place in the mindset of those who might decide the matter – is firstly the vision of two 15-year-olds having sex with each other; secondly, it's the vision of those two accessing 'protection' so they don't foist upon the state yet another generation of motherless, fatherless, family-less sprogs.

In that sense, it's all eminently pragmatic and, as the prof points out, all 'our' own fault anyway for encouraging this thing called the 'sexualisation' of children.

Sadly, though, the truth is that those who have historically most vociferously advocated the reduction of the 'age of consent' have been people whose concern has been enabling 'relationships' between those who are 15 – or younger – and those considerably older. And who are also men.

The motivation is not the sexual health of the young – an absurdity – but the sexual gratification of the old.

The idea which is never discussed is what exactly constitutes 'consent' and at which point in a life a person can be said to exercise it, or know the difference between it and coercion.

Mature women and men acquire STDs and are raped; they stumble and fret, and are foolish, isolated and sad because they cannot admit, accept or respond to what's happened to them at the hands of sexual attackers or their husbands or partners.

The idea that lowering the 'age of consent' to 15 will enhance a person's capacity to deal with risky sexual activity is nonsense.

What it will do, though, is retrospectively justify all the cases currently pending among celebrities who molested teenagers in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and who are still doing it. And those cases which haven't arrived at the courts yet; and those teenagers currently being abused and exploited in care, in school, in the home, and whose awareness of what 'consent' means might only arrive with a shock when they're in their 30s and have a breakdown due to the abuse they're suffering – which right now they think is love.

Our world now is one created by those who promoted sex education in schools in the first place. It's a liberal world, but one which is universally white, middle-class and stable. Sex education in schools, we were promised, would solve the issues of teen pregnancy and disease. It didn't.

Maybe it helped the well-off avoid those embarrassing conversation with their heirs, but it had no effect on the stats. Now, the solution is (yet again) lowering the age of consent.

Neither of these will solve the problem. The first, along with mass media, has put an end to childhood as a concept for all but the under-sevens, and it's now clear sex education doesn't reduce the rate of teen pregnancy for which Britain is notorious worldwide. The second would simply remove any legal redress society has against the many thousands of predators which, society tells us, are preying on teenage bodies night and day in our streets.

Only the celeb, serial offender, like Jimmy Savile, or extraordinary cases make it to the public eye. Thousands of other victims, who thought they consented or think they're consenting even now, will go unreported.

I'd love to see Prof Ashton's face when a 35-year-old is caught with a 15-year-old girl in a lay-by and both she and he say that consent was given.

Does he have a medical check for the accuracy of that one?

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