Professor John Ashton, President of the Faculty of Public Health called for a national debate about the age of consent. His argument, as reported in the Sunday Times, is society is sending confused signal about when sex is permitted. He said that if the legal age for sex was lowered to 15 it would draw a line in the sand against sex at 14 or even younger, and it would make it easier for 15-year-olds in a sexual relationship to seek contraception and sexual health advice from the NHS. Our confusion, he adds, means the 15-year-olds are not getting clear routes to getting support.
Brook is the leading young people's sexual health charity in the UK. We provide clinical and support services to over 280,000 young people every year. A sizeable proportion of those will be under 16 and in need of contraceptive and sexual health care.
Professor Ashton is absolutely right, as a country we are confused about sex and sexuality and you just need to look at the range of messages young people get to see they do get mixed messages about sex and sexuality. We see the result of that societal confusion everyday at Brook in the lack of information, embarrassment and pressure many young people have about their bodies and sex.
The UK approach is still a little bit Carry On. I am therefore pleased Prof Ashton has raised the debate. I was very interested at the range of responses and I was particularly pleased that a cross-party consensus emerged from the debate to keep the age of consent at 16. That reflects the broad consensus that exists in the country: the age of consent is a good indicator of the age at which we think people will be mature enough to enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual decisions. I was also pleased to see clear recognition, from Nick Clegg in particular, that good quality sex and relationships education is an important part of the answer to reducing confusion, improving sexual health outcomes and providing appropriate support and help for young people.
So what do young people tell us?
They tell us they want it to remain at 16. They say it makes it clear when we think it is about the right time to have sex if they are ready. Research tells us that between a 1/3 and a 1/4 of young people have sex before they are 16. Many of these, of course, will be 15 3/4-year-olds which means that between 2/3 and 3/4 don't have sex before the age of 16.
Young people also tell us that the age of consent a) sometimes feels a bit irrelevant if they have made a decision to have sex - then it is love and trust that counts b) some young people - particularly young women - tell us the age of consent can be a good negotiating tool if they don't want to have sex, and are being encouraged or feel pressured to by a partner c) they need to know they are highly unlikely they will be criminalised if they have consenting sex with somebody who is about the same age and d) every young person must know they have a legal right to access contraceptive advice and treatment even if they are under 16.
The law is currently designed to protect children and young people from exploitation and abuse. It is not designed to criminalise consenting sex between two young people of a similar age. There is plenty of evidence to suggest it is generally working as it should be. If we reduced the age of consent to 15, drew a line in the sand and actively discouraged 14 years from having sex as Professor Ashton suggests, we could feasibly be in the position where the law requires prosecution of two 14-year-olds which would be a much worse position than we currently have.
As it stands there is no legal reason that 15-year-olds should not be able to get the support they need if we educate well. Young people can access free, confidential advice and treatment even if they are under-16. This is well established in case law when Lord Fraser made a ruling in the Gillick v Wisbech Health Authority case in 1986. The Fraser Guidelines set out the criteria that health professionals must follow to make a judgement about whether an under 16-year-old can be provided contraceptive and sexual health treatment. These Guidelines provide a very straightforward framework for health professionals to exercise judgement.
Yes, of course some young people may be put off accessing services if they are under-16 and having sex, but we know from determined efforts that through education and reassurance, through emphasising confidentiality and building trust we can ensure all young people feel confident accessing services. A change in the law is not required to address that.
I was also interested that Professor Ashton is advocating a chain of health centres specialising in adolescent health. As teenagers would attend the Centres for all health problems, the clinics would not be stigmatised as dealing primarily with contraception and sexual health he argues. Brook has almost 50 years of providing services that deal with sexual health primarily within the context of holistic health and well being.
Young people have told us they want us to deal with more issues, particularly emotional health and mental well being at Brook. In response we have completed our first phase research - which tells us that yes they want a wider bundle of services but that must not detract from the contraception and sexual health service - are building strategic partnerships and will be launching and evaluating a pilot service in the North West to establish what that would offer, and importantly what impact it would have. Watch this space.
It is argued that countries with a lower age of consent have lower rates of teenage pregnancy. I don't make that causal link. When I have visited and worked with colleagues from countries that have got this stuff right, they tend to have an open and positive view about sex and sexuality, parents and children are open in discussing sexual matters, good sex and relationships education is just a fact of life and young people are confident accessing sexual health services.
The national debate in the UK it seems to me should be how do we create a revolution that builds a positive and open culture about young people, sex and sexuality in the UK - we must strive for openness about sex and sexuality, high expectations within relationships, easy access to services, better communication about relationships and sex at home and at school with a real focus on consent and what it means to actively give and seek consent. We must see sex and relationships education as part of the solution to the challenges of our time - sexualisation, easy access to online pornography, sexual exploitation and violence against girls.
There are changes we can all start making today, right now to drag ourselves into the 21st Century and ditch those lingering Victorian attitudes to sex.
My concern is that the debate about the age of consent filters onto young people's airwaves and what young people hear is "you cannot access services if you are under 16 and so we need a change in the law". That must not be allowed to happen, so let's shout from the rooftops "you can access services even if you are under 16s, tell your friends".