On 1 July 2015, the age of consent in Spain rose from 13 years to 16. Previously, Spain had been one of the most permissive countries in Europe with regards to the legal age of sex, but the 2012 murder of a 13-year-old girl by a 39-year-old man she had been in a sexual relationship with finally sparked a debate. The parents of the girl had previously reported their relationship to police, but nothing could be done because she was considered to have given her consent.
Many European countries with low ages of consent have been reconsidering their positions in recent years. In 2013, Pope Francis ordered that the age of consent in Vatican City be raised from 12 (which was, at the time, the lowest in Europe) to 18 years.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of variety in the age of legal consent in different European countries; from 14 in Austria, to 15 in Croatia, 16 in Belgium, 17 in Cyprus, and 18 in Malta. Last year, a Catholic priest was prosecuted in Norway for underage sex, his defence being that he did not realise it was illegal to have sex with a 15-year-old (the legal age of consent in his home country of Germany is 14 years).
So, at what age should sex be legal? We put this question to Peter Tatchell, a well-known human rights campaigner who has worked extensively in the field of LGBT rights, youth rights, and sex and relationship issues (and you can see an index of his articles on the age of consent on his website). We asked him: what was the right age of consent?
All across Europe, there are a range of different ages of consent, mostly in the bracket between 14 and 18. And, in all those countries, the age of consent is out of kilter with people’s actual lived lives. Whether we like it or not, most young people are having sexual relations well before the lawful age of consent.
What I’m suggesting is that perhaps the age of consent should be lowered to bring it into line with young people’s lived experience, to end the threat of criminalisation, and so that teachers or social workers who provide help and support to young people under the age of consent would not be at risk of prosecution. But I’m saying that should only happen if it goes hand-in-hand with earlier, better quality sex and relationship education to give young people the skills, knowledge and confidence to make wise, responsible sexual choices.
So, at the end of the day, it might be a good idea, for example, to have a uniform age of consent at 16 all across Europe, but also to have a caveat that where sex involves someone under the age of 16, providing there is no more than 2 years difference in their ages, there should be no prosecution. So, that would not crimimalise people of similar ages, but would protect them against predatory exploitation by people much older.
To get a response to Peter Tatchell, we also spoke to Dr Sarah Nelson, a prominent child sex abuse specialist, researcher, writer and media commentator who has advised the Scottish government. What would she say?
Well, I respect that view, I respect Peter very much, and in fact he’s shifted his position – he previously didn’t believe [the current age of consent] should be retained. I work with sexual abuse and exploitation, and I’m not suggesting that most sexual activity between teenagers is coercive, but there are enormous pressures. The point about having an age of consent at 16 is that it is protection there when it’s needed.
Now, working in the field that I do, I’m aware that unfortunately it is quite common for someone to be sexually abused by a sibling in a coercive way well before the age of 16. I’m not suggesting that children under 16 should receive heavy penalties, but unfortunately it is very possible that coercion occurs and, of course, there is a much greater degree of social pressure, particularly from boys pressuring girls into sex. I mean, every girl growing up has been aware of that. And I think that we need to retain the possibility of criminal action on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think it’s true to say nobody is harmed by this activity…
We also had a comment sent in by Christos, arguing that he would like to see compulsory sex education, including relationship and LGBT education, in schools. In some European countries, sex education is already compulsory but, again, there is a great deal of variety.
How would Peter Tatchell respond to Christos?
Education is about preparing young people for adult life, and one of the most important things for most adult people is love and relationships. And it’s very important that young people are prepared to know and understand sex and relationships, to secure fulfilment for themselves and their partners, so that they can have happy, healthy, emotionally-fulfilling sexual and emotional lives. So, I think that sex education and relationship education ought to be compulsory in all schools, and ought to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as well, because those young kids who are LGBT also deserve information, support and advice.
We also put the same question to Dr Sarah Nelson, to see how she would respond:
Yes, I agree there should be sex education in all schools. I think the more important debate is what that education should consist of, and I think many people have made the point that it shouldn’t simply be about the mechanics of contraception and so on, but it should include relationship education. And I would actually include within that education about keeping safe from sexual abuse and exploitation…
And I think that we have to include within sex education a great deal about mutual respect and about how the kinds of images that children now have access to, including hardcore pornography, do not represent how we should be treating each other. So, this has to encompass a very wide area, and I think if the emphasis is on respect and keeping safe, then that is much easier for a number of religious groups – Catholics, Muslims, and other groups who are perhaps quite wary of conventional sex education – to sign up to…
Finally, we had a comment from Catherine, arguing that despite promoting sex education classes, the UK has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Western Europe. She suggested we should rather be encouraging teenagers to wait, and have sex only when they are old enough to cope with the consequences.
How would Peter Tatchell respond to Catherine?
Well, the problem is that in Britain, as in many other European countries, sex and relationship education is of very, very poor quality. Young people themselves say, time and time again, that it was not explicit and informative enough, it fudged around the issues, it was vague and euphemistic, it was about biology, it wasn’t actually about sex and relationships, and so on.
I think one of the problems is that if we had better quality sex and relationship education, then perhaps the rate of teenage pregnancies and abortions in Great Britain would be much lower. And, ultimately, that’s what I’d like to see. But, of course, I’ve always said that I’m not about encouraging young people to have sex. I think it’s good for them to wait, but if they don’t wait, they should not be criminalised, and they should be prepared with the knowledge to make wise choices, to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections.
Young people should be encouraged to recognise that sex and relationships should be based on mutual consent, respect and fulfilment; that they have a right to say ‘No’ to sex; and that abusive sexual relations are wrong and should be reported to the police.
And, finally, what would Dr Sarah Nelson say?
If children are to be persuaded to wait, it’s no good preaching at them and giving them religious or moral reasons why they should wait. I think it’s particularly important to encourage girls to have the confidence to wait, especially as this is what most of them really want to do anyway, rather than being forced into having sex behind the bike sheds or whatever.
So, education should give girls the confidence they need to say ‘No’, as well as giving both genders a really wide appreciation and respect for one another. If you simply hand out contraceptives then you’re not just saying these things don’t matter, you’re saying we don’t really mind if it’s coercive or not. So, I would say people should wait not for moral reasons, but because I think it does demand a bit of age and maturity before people are ready to cope with a sexual relationship…
What should the age of consent be? Should it be the same across Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!