21 November 2013
Reducing the age of consent - a wise idea?
This week, Faculty of Public Health President Professor John Ashton proposed that the age of consent for sexual intercourse should be lowered to fifteen. His argument is that as around a third of fourteen to fifteen year olds are having sex anyway, lowering the age of consent would make it easier for them to access sexual health services from the NHS.
The age of consent was raised from twelve to thirteen in 1875, then up to sixteen in the 1880s where it remains today. The age of consent varies across Europe from fourteen in Germany and Italy, fifteen in France and Greece, seventeen in Ireland and eighteen in Romania.
Among many others, the prime minister, political parties and the NSPCC have voiced concerns at this proposal. On closer inspection there is, perhaps surprisingly, much common ground between evangelicals and the Faculty of Public Health in their statement on the issue. We have shared concerns about sexualisation of young people and pornography and a shared desire to protect and empower them to make good decisions. So is there really a danger in lowering the age of consent by just one year? Is fifteen as arbitrary as sixteen?
To a modern Western liberal culture the only real boundaries left around sex are those of age and consent. The few remaining sexual taboos are criminal offences such as paedophilia and rape - precisely because they involve an abuse of a person's age and/or consent. Lowering the age of consent would certainly trigger the slippery slope and blurred lines arguments and it definitely feels like a confusing move against the flow of post-Savile public opinion.
Lowering the age of consent also risks further sexualisation of young people at a time when they are still developing physically and emotionally. There is a danger that this would this give licence to more sexual activity at an even younger age and simply shift the pressure to conform to these sexual norms forward a year earlier.
The logic behind the proposal is also unusual and reverts to the territory of the lowest common denominator. Take the similar issue of underage drinking. Applying the same thinking, could it really be argued that lowering the age at which alcohol can be purchased would help more young people access health and social care services? Some people will always break the boundaries but this does not mean the boundaries should change to accommodate them.
Even if more young people accessed physical sexual health services, as proposed, there is no mention of sexual mental health or wellbeing. Just because sex is 'safe' physically does not mean that there are not emotional, spiritual and mental health implications.
An age of consent is really important to protect vulnerable young people, but if this becomes the only real boundary around sex we risk missing the bigger picture. The Bible places consistent boundaries around sex with the marriage relationship, love and fidelity. As Christians we see sex as sacred, set apart within these holy boundaries. It's not just an act of the body but of the whole person, mind and soul.
These Biblical boundaries are more and more at odds with a laissez-faire culture which detaches sex from relationship. Sex sells and people, made in the image of God, are being commodified by a culture driven by consumption. This is the context that we must challenge with the life-affirming message of Jesus. We reject a reductionist approach to sex, simply concerned with age and consent. We reject a fearful and solely protectionist approach to sex. Instead we focus on relationships and on helping young people set wise and healthy sexual boundaries for their body, mind and soul.
David Smyth, public policy officer, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland