21/11/2013 04:08 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

The Current Age of Consent of 16 Doesn't Protect Young People, It Criminalises Them

Attempts by one of Britain's leading public health experts, Professor John Ashton, to generate a much need debate about lowering the age of consent have been roundly rebuffed. The government dismissed the idea out of hand, without any consideration or justification. Other ill-informed critics unfairly accused him of opening the door to child sex abuse.

This depressing reaction shows, yet again, that a calm, rational, evidence-based discussion of the age of consent is almost impossible in the current feverish climate. Too often, sex between young people under 16 of similar ages is viewed as invariably abusive. Mostly it is not.

Professor Ashton suggested that the age of consent could be reduced to 15. However, he never explained why 15 and not another age. He also misleadingly advised that a third of young people have sex before the lawful age of consent of 16. This is only true for full sexual intercourse but not true when you take into account other sexual acts.

Half of all UK teenagers have their first sexual experience by the age of 14, according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. This experience includes intercourse, oral sex, mutual masturbation and sexual touching. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, all these sexually active young teens are criminals and sex offenders. They are lumped together with rapists and paedophiles.

Professor Ashton is right. The time has come for a thoughtful, measured reassessment of the age at which young people should be lawfully entitled to have sex. We need this debate because the current age of consent of 16 ignores reality and potentially penalises young couples involved in victimless behaviour.

The existing consent at 16 law was introduced over 100 years ago in a puritanical Victorian era. Since then, society has moved on to more informed and enlightened attitudes about sex. Most importantly, the average age of puberty and sexual arousal has fallen dramatically to around ten to 11. In the light of new evidence, the issue should be revisited and re-examined.

Whether we like it or not, under-age young people are having sex with each other.

Given that the average age of first sexual experience is 14, then an age of consent of 14 might be more realistic and reasonable than 16. If sex at 14 is consensual, and no one is hurt or complains, is criminalisation in the public interest? Is it in the 14-year-old's interest?

Opponents argue that young people of similar ages are never pursued by the police. Well, not quite. Although the number of arrests, cautions, prosecutions and sex offender register orders are small, they should not be happening at all. Criminalisation, even if rarely actioned, is wrong. It sends a hostile signal to teenagers.

It is true that having a single, inflexible age of consent - whether 16 or 14 - is problematic, since different young people mature at different ages. One alternative option might be to introduce a tiered age of consent, where sex involving under-16s would cease to be prosecuted, providing both partners consent and there is no more than two or three years difference in their ages. This system operates in Germany, Israel and Switzerland.

Many parents oppose any change. However, if their children have sex before the age of 16, surely most loving, responsible parents would not want them dragged to court, given a criminal conviction and put on the sex offender's register, alongside child sex abusers. This is what can, and sometimes does, happen under the present law.

Any review of the consent laws should be premised on five aims. First, ending the criminalisation of consenting relationships between teens of similar ages. Second, protecting young people against sex abuse. Third, empowering them to make responsible sexual and emotional choices. Fourth, removing the legal obstacles to earlier, more effective sex and relationship education. Fifth, ensuring better contraception and condom provision to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions and to cut the spread of sexual infections like HIV.

The age of consent does not stop young people having sex. It does not stop peer pressure to have sex. It does not stop child sex abuse. It is next to useless. All it does is criminalise tens of thousands of consenting under-age partners of similar ages. This is not protection; it's persecution.