Lowering the unrealistic age of consent will help teens
Published 10/03/2008 | 00:00
The time has come for a calm, rational debate about the age of consent. It should be premised on four aims. First, protecting young people against sex abuse. Second, empowering them to make wise, responsible sexual choices. Third, removing the legal obstacles to earlier, more effective sex education. Fourth, ensuring better contraception and condom provision to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions and to cut the spread of sexual infections like HIV.
This much-needed debate is not helped by Kevin Myers's comments (Time to speak out about the hypocrisy of gay 'freedoms', February 28).
He claimed that I "recently" advocated sexual rights for the under-16s. In fact, I first proposed this idea in 1996.
Myers added that I said "14-year-old boys should, if they want, be allowed to have sex with 40-year-old men". No, I didn't. My proposed reduction in the age of consent applied to all young people -- gay and straight. It was part of a package of ideas to promote the sexual health and welfare of teenagers and to protect them against sexual exploitation.
The consent law is an issue because the Irish age of consent of 17 ignores reality.
Among the under-25s, 31pc of men and 22pc of women have their first sexual intercourse before they are 17, according to the Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships (2006). The average age of first sexual contact (not full intercourse) is probably closer to 14. All these sexually active young people are criminals under Irish law.
An age of consent of 14 might be more reasonable. If sex at 14 is consensual, and no one is hurt or complains, is criminalisation in the public interest? Is it in the 14-year-old's interest?
Another option would be to introduce a tiered age of consent, where under-age sex would cease to be prosecuted, providing both partners consent and there is no more than three years' difference in their ages.
The issue is not whether the under-17s should have sex (I do not advocate early sexual activity), but whether they should be criminalised for consensual relations. Young people should be able to enjoy sexual relationships without being penalised by the law, providing both partners give their consent and are mature enough to understand the implications of their actions.
In nearly all European nations, the age of consent is lower than 17. The minimum age (with some qualifications) is 13 in Catholic Spain, 14 in Catholic Portugal and Italy, and 15 in Catholic Poland.
These countries would not have such low age limits if they thought young people were being put at risk. The laws against rape and indecent assault provide adequate protection.
The present Irish age limit of 17 makes abuse more likely by reinforcing the idea that young people under 17 have no sexual rights.
This sexual disempowerment of young people plays into the hands of adults who want to abuse them. Guilt and shame about sex also increase the likelihood of molestation by encouraging the furtiveness and secrecy on which abuse thrives.
One way to protect young people against unwanted sexual advances is by promoting sex-affirmative attitudes which challenge the idea that sex is something sordid, and by empowering teenagers to stand up for their sexual rights. Sexually informed and confident youngsters are more likely to resist sexual exploitation.
Any lowering of the age of consent needs to go hand-in-hand with candid, compulsory sex education in schools. From the age of 12, they need explicit advice on how to deal with sex pests, negotiate safer sex and sustain fulfiling relationships based on mutual consent and respect.
The age of consent of 17 inhibits teachers and youth workers from giving this information to the under-17s. They fear being prosecuted by the police, or sued by disgruntled parents, for aiding and abetting unlawful sexual acts. So they don't provide the necessary facts. Withholding sexual welfare advice is not protection. It is a form of child abuse.
Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner www.petertatchell.net