Sex & the law: Age of Consent

What is the point of having an age of consent when it is so hard to enforce and no one listens anyway…?

When you’re considering getting naked with someone you really fancy probably one of the last things on your mind is the law – obviously there are the rape laws when a person forces someone to have sex – however, when you’re both kind of horny and fancy the pants of each other (literally so, in this case) what on earth has the law got to do with it?

Well in this country as with most there is a legal age limit as to when you are allowed to have sex – this is called the age of consent. Most people are aware that the age of consent in the UK is 16 (17 in Ireland), however very few people are aware of what this law actually means in real terms or believe that many young people pay much attention to it.

First of all let’s explain what we mean by age of consent. The word consent is all about giving permission to do something. So for example, if your teachers want to take you out on a trip somewhere, they have to send consent forms home which are to be signed. Until you are legally classed as an adult you are your parent’s responsibility so the teachers have to let them know and ask for permission. Your folks then sign the form: “I, Mum, give permission that you may take my little one out for the day”, and then send the form back in.

Now when it comes to sex this is slightly different – you can’t just send a form home to your partner’s parents asking to have sex with their son or daughter! Seriously though, before you have sex with someone you need to be sure they consent – that they agree to have sex with you. Usually, this kind of goes unspoken; however, this is where things get a little hazy sometimes. Just because some one hasn’t said no – does not mean that they have said yes.

IMPORTANT – CONSENT is one of the most important subjects to explain to young peopleread this…..

The law say that you can not consent to sex if you are below the age of 16. The law says that you do not have capacity – the ability to make a sound decision as you are not old enough or mature enough to make that decision for yourself as you are still legally a child, so it makes that for you and it automatically says No.

So, even if you are horny as hell, lying butt-naked on a bed underneath a big neon sign saying flashing “shag-me now!” on it, you have still technically said no. And is you say no and someone has sex with you, it is classed as rape.

Generally when I talk to people – of all ages they tend to think that young people are starting to have sex earlier and earlier; so what’s the point at having a legal age if no one listens to it? One of the problems with having a legal age is just the same as with alcohol or smoking – we all want to have tried them before we are allowed to – otherwise where’s the fun?!

In terms of alcohol or cigarettes there are very few people who will wait until they are 18 before they try them. This is the problem with having a legal age for sex as well – there can quite often be this huge pressure to lose your virginity before you are 16 as it just wouldn’t be cool to wait until you’re allowed to do it. Or on the flip side, once you are 16 and in a relationship, there is often the expectation that you should be having sex because you are of age.

Indeed, losing your virginity can be seen as a way to show you are mature – a real grown-up. So people rush to get it over with, when in actual fact in reality they might not be ready yet.

Another problem, the media seems intent on sensationalising teenage sex – whenever it reports on youth culture or they make shows aimed at teens – there’s this belief that young people are having sex earlier and earlier and becoming sexualised far too young and wanting to grow-up too quickly. As I’ve said the general perception is that most people lose their virginity way before their 16th birthday – when in fact nothing has really changed in the last twenty years or so. The average age for first time sex in the UK is still over 16 years of age.

So what is the point of having a legal age if it just causes some people to do it before they are ready simply to fit in or to be considered cool? As a law it’s pretty hard to enforce anyway. It’s not like we have the sex police that hide under every teenager’s bed until their 16th birthday, watching and waiting to see if they start making out a little too much – then they jump out and grab you shouting “ and where do you think your hands were going Sonny-Jim?”. It is not like any one will necessarily know or stop you if two young people end up getting it on.

In actual fact the law is not there to stop underage teens from having sex together (although more about this later) – its not there to prevent teenage pregnancy or reduce the transmission of STIs. It is there for a far more important reason. It is there for protection.

The age of consent being set at 16 came from Victorian times. Philanthropists like Dr Barnardos campaigned to raise the age from 12 to protect vulnerable children from being forced into, what at the time was known as child prostitution – what we would now call child sexual exploitation. None of the problems we face today are new – CSE has been writhe all throughout history. Victorian times were only the golden age of childhood if you were rich – not if you were poor or vulnerable.

By having a legal age, we can prosecute those people who take advantage of children and abuse young people.

However, the problem then comes when we try to enforce a very important and well-meaning law in real terms. If we play with the ages a bit to give you two examples:  Do we think that it is acceptable for two 15 years olds, who have been going out for say 12 months and have thought things through, have got themselves some condoms and want to have their first experience of sex together? Well, yes we kind of think that’s ok – however it is still against the law. Ok, what about a 45 year old sleeping with a rather naive 16 years old? Well I think most of us would still find that a bit creepy and a bit wrong however legally its fine.

We don’t have perfect laws. And unfortunately by putting an age limit on things we don’t take in to consideration people’s maturity. If you have a bunch of 15 year olds in a room – their actually maturity ages are going to be far and ranging – everyone is different. What is morally acceptable and what is legal is not always the same thing.

The fact is you will not go to bed the night before your sixteenth birthday thinking I’m not ready yet – “night Mum, Night Dad”. Next day blow out your candles and pow – I’m ready – bring it on! It doesn’t work like that. Being ready for sex is not a present you open up on your big day. Some people will be ready at 16, so will be ready earlier and some will still not be ready until way after their 17th or 18th birthdays – every body is different. Unfortunately by having an age limit we seem to forget that. The only person who can tell you you’re ready – is you – not your partner, not your folks not your friends and not a police man – You.

Around the world, every country has its own laws and age limits when it comes to sex. For the most part, the majority seem to be based around 16, as we know that this is generally the time the majority of people tend to have their first sexual experiences. We do not know necessarily if they enjoyed them or regretted them afterwards, but generally we know that around about 80% of people wait until just after their 16th birthday to have sex for the first time. That still means that around 20% don’t wait and end up having sex earlier – but also remember that people lie about sex – so just because your mate claims to have shagged 6 people and they are only 14 – doesn’t make it so.

Some countries have their age of consent much higher, even up to 20yrs old. Spain has the lowest age of consent at just thirteen. When I tell many young lads this, they all high-five and want to book a holiday – but remember back to that thought of a 35 year old and a 13 yr old  – that would be legal there – so may be not as hot as it sounds at first.

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