British manifestations to lower the age of consent

British manifestations to lower the age of consent

Since the 1970s, a number of demonstrations have taken place in the UK in favour of lowering the age of consent, either on the grounds of claims for children’s rights, gay liberationism or, more recently, “as a means to avoid unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) and ‘bad sex’ via education and health promotion”. [Waites, Matthew. The Age of Consent – Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship (2005, pp. 122 and 220). New York/London: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-2173-4. ISBN-10: 1-4039-2173-3.]

Sociologist Matthew Waites, author of "The age of Consent – Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship", observed that:

“By the mid-1970s the case for a lower minimum age for all was finding wider support, with questions being posed concerning the merits of lowering the legal age for male/female sexual behaviour – not only within grassroots sexual movements, but also within religious organisations and liberal intellectual circles. [Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., pp. 132-133)]

(…) [Contemporarily,] “significant sections of liberal opinion in the political mainstream, including prominent campaigners for children’s interests and sexual health, support at least some selective decriminalization of sexual activity between young people under 16”.(…) More generally in academic work, particularly in Sociology, writing on sexuality from various perspectives has questioned the extent of prohibitions on sexual activity involving children. [Waites, Matthew (2005, p.220).]

Religious groups

In April 1972, a conference of the Quakers religious group in the UK, the Society of Friends Social Responsibility Council, passed a resolution in favor of lowering the age of consent in Britain from 16 to 14. [Waites, Matthew (2005, p.132).] [‘Quakers make 14 age of consent’, Sunday Express, 16 April 1972.]

Soon later, in July 1972, Dr. John Robinson, Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, and chair of the UK’s Sexual Law Reform Society, defended an age of consent of 14 in the Beckley Lecture to the Methodist Conference. [Waites, Matthew (2005, p.132).] [‘Dr. Robinson puts case for age of consent to be 14’, The Times, 06 July 1972; ‘Consent to what?, editorial, New Law Journal, vol. 122, no. 5554, 13 July 1972, pp.621-622.]

Both of them have made the case for equality at 14, thus comprising heterosexual and homosexual relations.

The National Council for Civil Liberties

In March 1976, the UK’s National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) called for an equal age of consent of 14 in Britain. Its submission to the Criminal Law Revision Committee generated extensive newspaper coverage. Albeit the report recognized the merits for the abolition of the age of consent, it proposed the retention of a prohibition upon sex below the age of 14 “as a compromise with public attitudes”: [Waites, Matthew (2005, p.135).]

“Although it is both logical, and consistent with modern knowledge about child development, to suggest that the age of consent should be abolished, we fear that, given the present state of public attitudes on this topic, it will not be politically possible to abolish the age of consent”. [Sexual Offences: Evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, NCCL report no. 13, February 1976, p.6. (London:National Council for Civil Liberties).]

Contemporary context


In the contemporary context, arguments for lowering the age of consent in the United Kingdom do not necessarily comprise values like individual freedom or ‘children’s rights’. Specifically, they tend to focus on a pragmatic analysis of a new situation, including puberty at earlier ages, a higher proportion of young people sexually active below the age of consent and a trend to negotiate sexual behavior in secrecy in certain age groups. [Waites, Matthew. (2005, pp. 212-214 and 220).] This new reality – combined with the present age of consent of 16 in the UK – would result in a higher incidence of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, while making it difficult for health professionals to talk about sex with youngsters below the age of consent.


Recent research by Professor Jean Golding shows that puberty is occurring earlier than in the 1970s, with an average age of menarche in girls now at 12 years and 10 months, [Waites, Matthew. (2005, p. 212).] compared to the average age of 14 for puberty in general, accepted as evidence by the Policy Advisory Committee of the 1970s. [The UK’s Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences was created in December 1975, by Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary of the British government, with the specific task of examining the law on the age of consent. Sources: Waites, Matthew (2005, op.cit., p.133); Policy Advisory Committee on Sexual Offences (PAC, June 1979, p. iii) – Working Party on the Age of Consent in Relation to Sexual Offences (London:HMSO).] More surprisingly, Golding’s research have found that “one girl in six hits puberty at the age of eight”. [Waites, Matthew. (2005, pp. 212 and 246, Note 9.1).] [‘One girl in six hits puberty by age of eight’, The Observer, 18 June 2000, pp.1-2; ‘Too much too young’, The Observer, 18 June 2000, Review, pp.1, 4; ‘Sex from 8 to 18’, UK’s Channel Four, Tuesday 27 June 2000, 9 p.m.]

According to a recent British research conducted by the Centre for Family and Household Research, [Wertheimer, A. and Macrae, S. (1999, p.19). Family and Household Change in Britain: A Summary of Findings from Projects in the Economic and Social Research Council Population and Household Change Programme (Oxford: Centre for Family and Household Research, Oxford Brookes University). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p.214).] “an increasing proportion of young people are sexually active below the age of consent”.

Additionally, the first UK’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL), which collected data up to 1990, have found that a much higher proportion of young people engage in others forms of sexual activity prohibited by the law – including mutual masturbation, oral sex and others – beginning on average at the age of 14. [Johnson, A.M.; Wadsworth, J.; Wellings, K.; and Field, J. with Bradshaw, S. (1994) – Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p.214).]

In his book on age of consent, sociologist Matthew Waites observes that :

"“Qualitative research reveals a picture of many young people negotiating sexual behaviour in a context of secrecy, constrained by power relationships while lacking confidence, resources and support”". [Waites, Matthew. (2005, p. 213).] [Holland, J.; Ramazanoglu, C.; Sharpe, S.; and Thomson, R. (1998) – The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power (London: Tufnell Press). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p. 213).]

He adds that “it is argued by some sexual health professionals that the age of consent should be lowered (…) to facilitate more effective support from health and education services”. [Waites, Matthew (2005, p. 213).]


Peter Tatchell, British gay activist and author, since the mid-1990s defends an equal (i.e., gay and hetero) age of consent of 14 in Britain, recovering the arguments presented in the 1970s by the NCCL and the Sexual Law Reform Society. He invokes Romeo and Juliet, aged 14 and 13, as ‘one of the greatest love stories of all time’. [Waites, Matthew (2005, pp. 220 and 222).] [Tatchell, Peter (1996) – ‘Is Fourteen Too Young for Sex?’, Gay Times, June, pp. 36-38; Tatchell, Peter (2002) – ‘Why the Age of Consent in Britain Should be Lowered to Fourteen’, Legal Notes 38 (London:Libertarian Alliance).] In the 1990s he has received support from the homosexual direct action group Outrage. [Lucas, I. (1998, pp.214-215) – Outrage! An Oral History (London: Continuum). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p. 220).]

Francis Bennion, British liberal humanist also influenced by the previous historical context (although not to the point of favoring a total abolition), emphasizes on the fact that children are ‘sexual beings’, concluding that this in itself makes legal prohibitions unfair. [Bennion, Francis (2003, p.13) – Sexual Ethics and Criminal Law: A Critique of the Sexual Offences Bill 2003 (Oxford: Lester Publishing). Cited by Waites, Matthew (2005, p.220 and 222).]

Miranda Sawyer, British journalist specialized in music and youth culture, points out that ‘we have sexual feelings from a very early age’, considering that sex is ‘natural behaviour’. She favors lowering the age of consent to 12 in the UK, while labeling the criminalization of sexual activity under the age of 16 as ‘laughably unrealistic’. [Sawyer, Miranda (2003). ‘Sex is not Just for Grown-ups’, The Observer, Review section, 02 November, pp.1-2.]

ee also

* Age of consent
* Age of consent reform
* French petitions against age of consent laws
* Sexual Morality and the Law
* Statutory rape


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