Age and the Law

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A prominent barrister specialising in reproductive rights has called for the age of consent to be lowered to 13. Barbara Hewson told online magazine Spiked that the move was necessary in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal to end the “persecution of old men”. She also said that complainants should no longer receive anonymity. The NSPCC called her views “outdated and simply ill-informed” and said to hear them “from a highly experienced barrister simply beggars belief”. – BBC Website

Many newspapers and online blogs have leapt to their soap boxes to decry the thoughts Barbara Hewson and claim that she is justifying paedophilia and encouraging abuse. STOP! Before we get all “Daily Mail” about this, like many other aspects of life in this country we don’t always have the right answer – and sometimes the right answer is not always the most palatable one. Often there is no right answer only compromise.

Look at the facts: this country has such a bad relationship with sex and with drink, yet both have high ages of consent in comparison to some of our European neighbours – unsurprisingly there are less issues with both in those countries because it’s a more open and discussed matter than here. The UK is still the leader in terms of teenage pregnancies with nearly 50,000 children born to women under the age of twenty last year. Around Europe the age of consent ranges from 13 in Spain to 18 in Turkey. In France, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Sweden they all have sexual ages of consent lower than ours but they have less issues with teenage pregnancy – so why is this barrister being barracked and booed when there is plenty evidence on her side for a change in the law?

I think her timing and linking to Operation Yewtree is wrong and trying to justify the actions of these people in any way does seem questionable and ill judged- but again she makes some valid points. The current witch-hunt is an embarrassment and there’s a chance that some of the alleged perpetrators are innocent – but they have now been tarnished by these accusations and it almost doesn’t matter to wider society if they are guilty or not as most people appear to have made up their minds on the subject. She also states there should be a statute of limitations on these matters to stop people standing up forty years later making an accusation and then it is one person’s word against another’s – the issue being that without anonymity for the accused as well as the accuser it could be a malicious and false accusation done for no other reason than dislike for the person. That is a dangerous game but the alternative is we may never have found out about some of these atrocities if there had been a time limit added.

I think all can agree that the stories have been terrible and Savile’s case especially has been something that no-one could ever confuse as acceptable – however Hewson makes the point that:  “touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt” are not crimes comparable to gang rapes and murders and “anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality”.  She’s right they are not comparable, but should they just be ignored or is there a point here about how far down the road we go of accusing someone of “sexual assault” when it is a minor crime from several decades ago – is it right to ruin someone’s life for that?

The other issue that no-one seems to consider is just how sexually active some of our younger teenagers are. Often rumours fly around schools about second and third year pupils (13/14 y.o.) and their extra-curricular activities with each other. Are there issues with the way we deal with sex education. Different people become sexually active at different times, so do we need to get beyond the “plumbing” stage earlier so we can more openly discuss the other aspects of sex? And if we’re honest how many of the people we went to school with were also sexually active before it was legal to do so?

I’m not an expert on these matters and only have personal opinions, but I think 16 is probably the best compromise to protect children and at the same time allow those who feel ready to go on and live their lives as they wish. What we shouldn’t do is confuse “consent” with “age of consent” because the two are very different and I think a lot of people automatically think that underage sex is a combination of the two. Maturity comes to each of us at a different time so from that point of view there is a discussion to be had. Lack of consent is a prosecutable offence and should never be confused with the issue Hewson is making here.

Barbara Hewson is obviously an intelligent woman with a lot of experience in the sector of which she talks, so those who are shouting her down are not respecting the fact she speaks from a position of knowledge on the subject. The NSPCC also have a valid point that abuse is a difficult thing to come forward and report. My hope is that more people in positions of authority on these types of subjects open this debate up further because in the light of this last six months or so it would be good to perhaps consider some of the issues that she raises and not dismiss the opportunity for discussion.

JD

PS: Here’s a blog that looks at the many responses I’ve had to this post – http://wp.me/pJh58-rL

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