Writing in spiked! recently, barrister Barbara Hewson suggests that the age of consent for sexual activity should be restored to its pre-1885 position of 13.
Reducing the age of consent to 13 for all sexual acts would bring the UK in line with Spain, although Spain has a legal caveat that allows for prosecution where sexual consent is obtained by deception in the case of a person aged between 13 and 16. Until 1995, the age of consent in Spain was 12. Indeed, Britain’s age of consent is high by the standards of European countries, many of which have an age of consent for heterosexual acts of 14 or 15, although the age of consent for homosexual acts is not necessarily the same. Among other developed nations, Japan has an age of consent of 13, although this is subject to further restrictions.
An interesting note to this matter is that until 1993, English common law held that a boy under the age of 14 could not commit rape as a principal offender because he was irrebuttably presumed to be incapable of sexual intercourse. That a boy of that age is indeed so capable has been the subject of some publicity.
While there is some merit in arguing about the moral, physiological, emotional and cultural import of an age of consent, and the extent to which children need to be protected both from the attentions of adults and their peers, we should also consider all this in the context of what consent has come to mean in the implementation of the law. Consent is not, and never was, the same as a contract, whereby terms are mutually agreed and non-performance brings with it an entitlement to compensation. Rather, consent is a highly complex concept which is changing rapidly in its meaning. Continue reading