The age of consent

Three news stories recently have focused on circumstances where under-age girls have been used by older men. In the Savile case, a celebrity regularly abused vulnerable young women. In Rochdale, a group of girls was systematically exploited by a cabal of pimps. In the third case, a fifteen-year old girl absconded with her teacher. There are several recurring themes here: illegality, the conduct of older men, breaches of trust, and in two cases at least, the failure of responsible authorities to protect the girls. The combination of celebrity and the role of the BBC has made the Savile case most prominent, but to my mind the Rochdale case is the most disturbing. The Times reported: “Policeman yawned loudly as girl, 15, described how she was forced to have sex.” The police had categorised this as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

Part of the problem here hangs on the way we think about ‘consent’. A 15 year old cannot legally give consent – but would any of these situations really have been acceptable if the girl was 16? There are reasons to think that the ‘age of consent’ is misnamed: we do not apply the same tests to a relationship with a boy or girl of the same age, and the law makes a distinction in the terms of the offence according to the age of the other person. The primary purpose of an age limit is to protect young people from exploitation from older people. And if we think about the issue in terms of the conduct of older people, rather than the independent judgment of the young person, the age at which protection from exploitation is withdrawn is too low.

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