If you're an adult, how comfortable would you be if the age of sexual consent were 13? Does the idea of replacing an arbitrary line in the sand with another one send you into a moralistic rampage? If that's the case, then you'll probably have quite a few words against John Spencer, a law professor in the UK, who has been recently arguing for lowering the age of consent from 16 to 13. If such is the case, you may follow the conventional logic of Tory MP David Davies, who recently made the classic "protect-the-children" argument for keeping the age at 16:
"It is vital that the law protects vulnerable young people from exploitation by adults."1. "Vulnerable young people" are going to be exploited by adults regardless of whether the age of consent is 16 or 13, or anything for that matter. In fact, "vulnerable children" are exploited by adults from the moment they are born in all kinds of ways (unless you think the commercial breaks during Dora the Explorer are there for any other reason), but I suppose the kind of exploitation we're talking about is sexual harm caused by molestation and rape. In which case, it's hard to argue that the law shouldn't prosecute people who molest children--that's not what's being argued. The problem is, too many people are hyped into believing the function of the law is to "protect children," and governments like to spread this lie to continually enforce the status quo. The law prosecutes those who harm children, it doesn't protect them from anything--in fact, it often prosecutes the very "vulnerable children" it's supposedly protecting (story 1, story 2.):
John Spencer will argue that the current age of consent, fixed at 16, criminalises "half the population". Two years ago, Chief Superintendent Clive Murray argued that the law does not distinguish between sexual abuse and "youthful natural instinct".If you're still not convinced that status crime sex laws do in fact harm young people, take a look at the facts. If you look at the age group break down of registered sex offenders, you'll find a whole lot more 14 year olds than the "dirty old men" you hear about on the news. Now no one is saying that all those 14 year olds are innocent--the majority of them probably did commit acts of rape and "child corruption,"--but one has to wonder why we have politicians talking about protecting young people from "adult sexual exploitation" when in reality the highest amount of offenders are under 20. In fact, you're just as likely to find 5 year old sex offenders as you are 55 year old, and more likely to find 10 year olds than 55 year olds. Ignoring this seems to have more to do with trying not to upset those who were abused as children (the most vocal political constituency on this issue) than it does with conforming our opinions to reality.
2. Firstly, if you start out defining the age of consent law as "a law that protects children," you create a tautology whereby you can criticize anyone arguing against the law as arguing against "protecting children." This is a politically convenient attack, but it's false. Secondly, once you start out saying the law protects children by definition, now you have to ignore the problems the law causes for young people in the cases where it doesn't protect them (such as when two minors have consensual sex with one another and each get charged with statutory rape). Once again, this is an efficient excuse if you're a politician, but not if you're a rational person.
One has to congratulate Classically Liberal for pointing out a reality that so many choose to ignore and so many more don't know exist:
It takes so little for this happen to a child. A girl in school has oral sex with a boy in school. She becomes a sex offender for the rest of her life. Streaking a school event, as a practical joke, becomes a sex crime in the new America. Two kids “moon” a passerby and are incarcerated in jail as sex offenders, where they may well learn a lesson or two about rape. A teenager, who takes a sexy of photo of him, or herself, is paraded around the community as a “child pornographer” for the rest of his or her life. Two kids in the back seat of a car have fumbling sex. The law says one is an offender because the other is a “victim.” One week later, a birthday passes, and it is no longer a crime. One week’s difference and a life is ruined. In other cases an act that is legal on Monday is illegal on Tuesday because the older of the two turned one year older. That becomes enough to qualify him, or her, as an offender.Or maybe you share the opinion of Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who said:
"The proposition that the age of consent should be lowered is absolutely appalling. The situation is bad enough at the moment with high rates of teenage pregnancies and sexual diseases."3. Every country has its own domestic problems that need different laws to cover them, and since many governments have exhausted the "it is immoral" excuse, (for some reason, they think it is more moral for 16 year olds to avoid being labeled as sex offenders for consensual sexual activity than it is for 13 year olds), they decide to throw in some horror-story domestic issue to latch onto it in order to justify their morality-based opinions. There is always going to be the floodgates theory--if we do this, it'll open the floodgates for rampant sex abuse and teenage pregnancy, therefore, the status quo ought to be preserved. Well, I'm going to give Widdecombe here the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Britain does have high rates of teenage pregnancy. If that's the case, that's not a shining endorsement of the status quo now is it?
Anyone can play the let's compare countries age of consent with their teenage birth rate game and come out with a pairing that supports whatever conclusion they want to draw If we were to compare Spain (age of consent is 13) to the UK (age of consent is 16), we'll find that more pregnancies are correlated with a higher age of consent. There are no doubt countless comparisons one could make. The fact is, teenage pregnancy is going to happen regardless of what the arbitrary line in the sand is. Culture determines sexual deviancy more than the laws do because laws only prosecute, they don't in fact uphold the cultural moral sentiment as much as people would like to think:
The Government's controversial teenage pregnancy strategy, which has cost taxpayers more than £300million, was meant to halve the number of conceptions among girls under 18 in England between 1998 and 2010, but teenage pregnancy rates are now higher than they were in 1995.We know from experience here in the US that "Abstinence Only" and abstinence pledges increase unhealthy sexual promiscuity in young people rather than decrease it. It seems the UK's teenage pregnancy strategy (sex education and better access to contraceptive use for young people) has had better results, but it's still mixed. It seems no matter how restrictive or free a government is when it comes to sexual activity with young people, teenage pregnancy is always going to be an issue. The argument that such a move to lower the age of consent would "open the floodgates" doesn't appear to be all that powerful. If anything, evidence seems to be pointing in the opposite direction--for instance, condom distribution programs have been found to promote condom use and therefore stimulate healthier sexual activity among young people (source 1, source 2, source 3.)
Given all this, it's unlikely that the age of consent in a particular country has much to do with the rate of sexual promiscuity, and certainly lowering the age of consent isn't going to let child molesters and rapists off the hook, seeing as there are laws against rape already. It seems more likely that upholding an age of consent at 16 is done for the same reason as keeping condoms out of school for fear they'll promote pregnancies...more so out of personal opinion than out of reason.