‘Gay rights’ activist Peter Tatchell’s call to lower the age of consent to 14 has been dismissed by critics who say the current law is a crucial child protection measure.
Mr Tatchell’s latest calls for the law to be relaxed came in a Radio 4 programme last week and were repeated in an article for The Guardian’s online comment section.
They were strongly opposed by an expert on child abuse and a GP who were also guests on the programme.
In his online article Mr Tatchell wrote: “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?”
He added: “Some teens, and even young children, innocently and spontaneously explore and experiment at an early age.
“In most cases this causes them no harm at all.”
But David Lindsay, writing on his Telegraph blog, disagreed.
He said, “sex is for people who can cope with the consequences, physical and otherwise”, adding: “In a word, adults.”
Mr Tatchell also suggested that the age of consent put under-16s off seeking advice about sex and contraception.
But another guest on the Radio 4 Iconoclasts programme, GP and family campaigner Dr Trevor Stammers, dismissed this argument as “a complete and utter red herring”.
He said “any young person can go to a family planning clinic to a GP and know that their confidentiality will be maintained”, adding “you can get contraceptives anywhere, you can get advice anywhere, it’s not difficult”.
Fellow guest Sarah Nelson, a researcher into sexual abuse from Edinburgh University, also rejected Mr Tatchell’s calls.
She said: “When you work in the field of exploitation and abuse, I’m afraid that other children and young people are responsible for about a quarter to a third of incidents of sexual abuse”.
She added that “children of 11, 13, 15 can be exploitative towards each other”.
She also rejected Mr Tatchell’s claim, re-stated in his online article, that “promoting sex-affirmative attitudes” among teenagers through education would be a better protection from unwanted sexual advances than the current law.
She said that sex education “is absolutely not sufficient, it does not prevent exploitation and abuse which is a product of power relationships, it does not, very sadly, encourage young people to tell about sexual abuse”.
She added, “I do not believe that you could decriminalise this without sending a signal to predatory adults and predatory older teenagers at the same time”.
A recent NSPCC survey found that one in six girls who had been in intimate relationships said they had been pressured into having sex by their boyfriends.
A quarter had experienced physical violence. Girls with older boyfriends were most at risk, with three quarters reporting abuse.
A study by the University of Maryland in America also found that 14-year-olds with a history of maltreatment other than sexual abuse were more than twice as likely to have had sex than if they had no such history.
And a study published by the Journal of Health Economics last year found that teenage girls engaging in sexual activity double their chances of depression.