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Age of Reason and Consent

Map with the ages of consent

The controversial nature of this topic consistently surprises me. I have always simply accepted the logic, reasons and rule of Britain’s age of consent law on its merit as an act that aims to protect children from sexual manipulation, prostitution and abuse. However, there are those who advocate a departure from our consent age of sixteen, calling for either its alteration, or abolishment as law in its current form. Countries like Mexico enforce a drastically different set of rules: the majority of territories allow for consensual sex if both parties are twelve years old, whilst in certain areas consensual sex is lawful when the applicant is thought to have entered puberty- ambiguous I know… Europe is also varied: Spain, thirteen; Germany, fourteen; France, fifteen; Russia, sixteen; Ireland, seventeen. Most of Europe sets its ages at either fourteen or fifteen, so what is the rationale behind sixteen?

When one accepts that there is a requirement to protect children with a law that restricts their ability to engage in sexual intercourse, it seems self-evident that the age of consent is the age with which a child is deemed ‘ready’ to make their own decisions regarding their sexuality. Sixteen therefore, seems like a reasonable figure that takes into account biological and mental readiness. It is an honest attempt to balance the sexual freedom of the individual, with society’s responsibility to protect its young. But people mature at different rates, so should such a line be drawn if it can lead to criminal prosecution when crossed?

Well yes actually. There is a surprising amount of common sense ingrained within the United Kingdom’s consent laws. The metonymically named Romeo and Juliet clauses leave the legislation open to interpretation when dealing with criminality and underage sex. The legislature states: “the overriding purpose (…) is to protect children and it was not Parliaments intention to punish children unnecessarily.” The difficulty comes when dealing with parties who are above and below the consent margins. Critics citing the common occurrence of ‘mature’ relationships between a sixteen and fifteen year old should be referred to the Romeo and Juliet clauses which will take into consideration the ‘age’, ‘maturity’ and ‘circumstances’ of the parties. I would therefore ask rational critics of our consent law to keep in mind its ability to look at cases on an individual basis and account for circumstance. Whilst also ask you to consider, in hindsight, how rounded, comfortable, responsible and mature you felt at fifteen.

To those that simply condemn the unapologetic control over someone else’s body- the adult who thinks their thirteen, fourteen or fifteen year old partner is mature enough to make their own decisions – consider that (at the very least) in not understanding the justification for such a law, why such restrictions exist and the liberal thought that has gone into their construction, they themselves undermine most arguments regarding maturity. The law is only enforced when a party feels as though they or someone under their guardianship has somehow been abused; the state has a responsibility to protect these people. Lowering the age of consent means readjusting the subjective boundaries that we use to judge criminality in these cases. Force the age of consent down in the name of a misplaced assumption regarding the omnipotent power that the age of consent law holds, and all you are doing is removing the legal protection for people that, occasionally, really do need it.

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1 Comment

  1. I really agree that nuance in the law is fundamental to this debate. I was for lowering the age of consent slightly because of these Romeo and Juliet type cases but I think you’ve persuaded me otherwise!

    Harriet (News Culture Ed)


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