Sunday, 17 November 2013

The age of consent

Apparently a barrister in a set of chambers known as Hardwicke (it used to be Hardwicke Building but decided to get trendy and have a single word title, perhaps paying pretend experts a lot of dosh for the idea) has suggested that the age of consent for sexual intercourse should be reduced to thirteen.  On reading of her suggestion I cast my mind back more than forty years and tried to remember what happened in terms of jiggy-jiggy among my classmates.  

It was not difficult to remember.  There were the religious ones, saving themselves for the person their god has chosen for them.  There were the demure ones for whom sexual activity was not appropriate at the time.  There were the ugly (and usually spotty) ones who had no chance whatever they might have desired.  And there were those who felt it right at the time to have a stab at it, or, as the case may be, receive a stab.  

Names could be named because those who "did it" at the age of 13 were known to be doing so, but nothing would be served by giving the names.  What matters is the truth of what was happening and why.  

The why is really simple.  They did it because they decided to do it.  They knew it was against the law but they felt it was right for them at the time.  I have no idea how many, if any, now regret those actions, what I do know is that those who did it were among the most self-assured and wordly-wise boys and girls in my year.  

Needless to say I was in the ugly and spotty category and had to wait several years to learn the inadequacy of my sensual performance.  

The barrister who spoke-out is called Barbara Hewson.  You can read a little about her here.   I know Barbara Hewson and I know Hardwicke very well.  Barbara is not a crank she is a highly intelligent woman and thoroughly practical.  She knows that teenagers will play the jiggy-jiggy game whether or not their parents or the law like it and suggests that it would be better for the law to reflect reality than for it to criminalise something that involves no abuse and will happen regardless of any outside influences intended to prevent it.  

Naturally the BBC has swooped on her expression of opinion and given tacit support to those who criticise it as a molesters' charter.  No doubt they believe there is a host of dirty old men currently suppressing their urge to seduce thirteen year-olds who would lose all inhibitions were the age of consent reduced by three years.  We have to be realistic, no doubt there are some in that position.  Currently they fail with sixteen year-olds and will fancy their chances with younger prey.  But why will they fancy their chances with younger prey?  It seems to me there is only one answer, namely that younger girls or boys will have less strength to resist their "grooming".  Since we have to be realistic it seems inevitable that this would be the case because that is how human being are.  Yet it does not justify teenagers who in fact consent to sexual activity being subject to criminal prosecution simply because the law decrees their consent to be inoperative.  

Perhaps studies have been conducted into the effect of previous reductions to the age of consent.  If so it is tolerably clear they have not produced alarming results or they would have been all over the press and I cannot recall reading anything of the sort. In particular the age of consent for male homosexual activity has been reduced from twenty-one to eighteen and then to sixteen within the last fifty years, each proposed reduction being met by howls of indignation from those who predicted an epidemic of middle-aged men in dirty macs inviting impressionable young boys back to view their etchings.  As far as I know nothing of the sort has happened, although it is inevitable that more approaches will have been made than before and that more will have succeeded, the numbers of such do not seem to have caused panic in the police so it might be reasonable to infer that no real problem arose.  

I think it important not to be too flippant about this issue.  It is easy to say that using the power of age to make a sexual conquest is not a problem because abuse of that power is a criminal offence and anyone doing so is liable to prosecution.  That is the case but prosecuting such matters is difficult because everything usually happens between the participants with no external witnesses and the young complainant is, rightly, subject to cross-examination in court that he or she is usually less able to deal with than the older defendant.  

Barbara Hewson raised a point that is a true dilemma.  How do we de-criminalise genuinely consensual sexual conduct between young people and, at the same time, maintain protection against the exploitative dirty mac brigade, however large or small their brigade is? 

That dilemma actually raises a a false dichotomy.  Preventing the young from being exploited by older people is a matter of effective enforcement of the law whereas de-criminalising consensual activity is a matter of the law reflecting what actually happens and will always happen and, I would suggest, harms neither of the parties involved.  

I do not believe there is a massive horde of dirty old men in dirty old macs just waiting for the age of consent to be lowered so they can realise their previously unfulfilled dream of a bit of teenage totty quivering beneath their flabby torsos.  

Look, your old pervs fall into three categories.  There are those, very few in number, who don't care about the law and try it on anytime they can, for them the age of consent is irrelevant.  In reality they are of the same mind-set as the rapist.  Then there are those who keep to the law and will try their luck with anything legal, for them the age of consent is important because it draws the line between legal and illegal.  And there are those who just fancy someone regardless of age and law, for them it is an emotional matter of the connection they have (or think they have) with the object of their desires.  The second and third categories would never force themselves on anyone although they might be a terrible nuisance.   

An age of consent is an arbitrary line.  There is an argument - the argument made by Barbara Hewson - that it should reflect what young people do these days.  That is the view to which I subscribe, although I know too little about young people today to say whether it should be sixteen, thirteen or lower.  The threat of the dirty mac brigade falls away once one realises that they will only get some legal jiggy-jiggy with the consent of the other person.  Indecent approaches will be made and some will succeed and leave the young recipient of their two inches slightly upset and very disappointed, against that must be weighed the young people who have sexual intercourse because they both want to.  It is difficult to understand that their consensual activity should be a crime. 


Antisthenes said...

"it would be better for the law to reflect reality".

I have to totally agree with that statement. Too often we do the very opposite with damaging and costly consequences. A prime example is prohibition in the USA in early 1920's. To me prostitution and drug sale and use should not be criminalized as the benefits of not doing so would surely outweigh the current advantages, if there are in fact any, of it being illegal. As for lowering the age of consent as this lady advocates I believe your and her arguments in favour have convinced me. Perhaps some upper limit of age in one of the consenting couple should be introduced so that dirty old men in macs could be deterred from abusing the legislation. I am no lawyer and therefore do not know if that is a practical solution or not.

Anonymous said...

I can see the perfect logic in your case but sometimes these things have a habit of biting us all on the bum. I don't know where other countries stand on this issue but I suspect that pressure put on young women to engage in sexual activity with their peers might be even harder to bear if they boys were able to tell girls that it's legal and nothing to worry about along with the usual "don't you really love me?" line.
This is one of those enormously complex issues which need more time to debate than the usual Westminster way of doing things.