Despite Savile, despite Gary Glitter, despite Jeffrey Epstein in the USA, further cases of high-profile older men exploiting teenage girls for sex, sometimes girls under the legal age of consent, frequently come to light. These incidents are not exclusively male on female, but are in a vast majority. Shocking revelations are vividly exposed in the media and online, and outrage on behalf of the young victims is expressed. And then, as often as not, the debate over the raising of the age of consent surfaces again.
The age of consent in the UK is 16, the minimum age when young people of any sex, gender, or sexual orientation can legally take part in sexual activity. It is legal for a 16-year-old to consent to having sex with a much older person, provided the older person is not in a position of trust, such as their teacher. Consent is when all people involved choose to take part in sexual activity, and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.
Would raising the age of consent make those of 16 and under less vulnerable to predators?
There are specific definitions of precisely what constitutes freedom and capacity to consent. Consent can also be withdrawn at any time before or during sexual activity, and consenting on one occasion does not mean consent on another, regardless of the relationship status. Everyone has the right to say “No”. The law seems clear, but as is well known, it’s the grey areas around “grooming” and controlling behaviour, and the disturbingly low figures covering convictions for sexual assault and rape, or even bringing cases to trial, that highlight the undeniable fact that many predators don’t take “No” for an answer (or they interpret it as, “Oh, alright then”).
So, would raising the age of consent make those of 16 and under less vulnerable to predators, particularly when many young people frequently meet older adults in places such as clubs and pubs, or at concerts or festivals? Around the world, the age of consent is most commonly between 14 and 18, with a few countries, such as Argentina and Niger opting for 13. In Mexico, the age of consent can, in some situations, be as young as 12.
In Europe there are also surprising differences. Germany has 14 as the age of consent, as long as a person over the age of 21 does not exploit a 14 to 15-year-old’s lack of capacity for sexual self-determination. And even then, a conviction of the person over 21 depends upon a complaint being lodged by the younger individual.
In the UK, it might be argued that as the legal age for getting married or entering into a civil partnership rose to 18 earlier this year, then the age of consent should rise accordingly.
Other suggestions include a form of “sliding scale” age of consent, where consensual sex between young people of 16 and above is legal, while sex between, for example, a 16 to 18-year-old and an older adult, would be against the law. But how old is an older adult – 25, 30, 50? Surely any such age-based legal restrictions could only be arbitrary, and open to manipulation, and would partners already in significant age-gap consensual relationships suddenly become lawbreakers?
While 16-year-olds are still regarded as adolescents in many ways, in others they are judged as adults. They can be in full-time employment, pay taxes and join the armed forces, and it’s predicted that the Labour Party will propose lowering the voting age to 16 in their next general election manifesto.
By raising the age of consent, we might therefore have a situation in which 16-year-olds are deemed responsible enough to elect a government, but not mature enough to make informed decisions about sexual relationships.