Despite him being an eminent scientist, the Government has moved very quickly to dismiss it out of hand – ““We reject the call to lower the age of consent. Current age is in place to protect children and there are no plans to change it”. They did not address any of the arguments put forward.
What’s the current position
Basically, someone under the age of 16 cannot consent to any sexual activity. But it’s actually slightly more complicated than that.
For the more serious offences such as rape, factual consent is a defence if the complainant is aged 13-16. There are separate offences that can be charged in those circumstances (see Sexual Activity with a Child) where consent will be a defence if the defendant reasonably believes that the complainant is over the age of 16.
Under the age of 13 the consent of the complainant is no defence (see ss5-7 Sexual Offences Act 2003).
Also, there are lower penalties for some offences if they are committed by someone aged under 18 (s13 Sexual Offences Act 2003).
There is also another anomaly in that whilst someone aged 16-18 can consent to any sexual activity, they cannot consent to having a photograph or video of themselves taken that is ‘indecent’. See here for some discussion of the issues surrounding this.
What are the arguments?
There are good (and bad) arguments on both sides. An example of a bad argument can be seen given by our Deputy Prime Minister ‘I am not in favour of that. The age of consent has been a British law for generations in order to protect children‘.
That’s not entirely true. In fact, it’s not true at all. Far from being the law for ‘generations’, the age of consent has been as it is now for less than 3 years in Britain.
Mr Clegg may have been a bit anglo-centric, and hetronormative, there. In fairness, the age of consent in England for heterosexual sex has been 16 since 1885, which may count as generations, so we could give him the benefit of the doubt. Politicians never lie of course.
Of course, much has changed since 1885. The fact that a law has been in place since the 19th Century, does not mean that it should still be in place now.
Marital rape is a good example -the exception that meant a man could not rape his wife was in place for over a hundred years after 1885, supposedly for the protection of marriage. Rightly, that was considered, and considered to be outrageous nonsense, and was repealed.
Personally, I think it’s time to look at this again, particularly when the age of consent is so much higher than the age of criminal responsibility.