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Age of Consent

07 Jan

There has been a heated argument on a music forum I belong to which all boiled down to the differing ages of consent in different parts of the world, at different times.

For instance, Jerry Lee Lewis and his two sisters were all married before they reached 16, and these were all apparently perfectly legal in Louisiana at that time (1950s or earlier). A lot of people will remember the fuss over Jerry’s third wife, Myra, who was a distant cousin, and only 13 when he married her. But this was quite common in that part of the States at the time – Elvis was dating Priscilla when she was a schoolgirl of 14, for instance.

In Spain, the legal age of consent is apparently still 14. In England for years the age of consent without parents’ permission was 21, the ‘coming of age’ birthday at the time. To marry between the ages of 16-21 without parents’ permission young couples used to elope to Gretna Green across the border in Scotland, where the legal age of consent for marriage without parents’ permission was 16.

Also in Britain, the legal age of consent for sexual relations for male homosexuals has changed many times. Before 1967 it was totally illegal, so even if you were both in your 90s you could both be jailed if found out, and many were. In 1967, under very restrictive circumstances, the legal age for gay men was set at 21. Much later, around the turn of the 20th/21st Centuries, it was brought down to at first 18, and then 16 for gay men.

What this means is that in some countries at certain times people were committing crimes which wouldn’t have been crimes in other places, or even in the same place at a different time, and vice versa. If anyone, for instance, slept with a 13 year old, let alone tried to marry her, in Louisiana in 2008, they’d no doubt be falling foul of the law there.

There is much disagreement over the proper age of consent, and despite anomalies like the American Deep South, it has tended to come down over the years. And even in countries where it remains at 16 or older, it is unlikely that young teenagers of 13 or 14 experimenting sexually with others in the same age group would be prosecuted.

Personally I feel 13 or 14 is a bit young if it means much older people can have sexual relations with these young teenagers, because they are not even earning money at that age, and may be confused about their sexuality, and other matters. They can be too easily be persuaded to do something they regret later by an older person who has power over them in the form of money or just their mature years and authority.

But on the other hand I decided I was gay at 13, and although I remained confused and somewhat guilty about my sexual orientation for many years, and remained a complete virgin until my early 20s, the law at that time said as a gay male I was outside the law if I practised my inclinations however old I was. 

Only when I was already 22 (and still a complete virgin, by which I mean I had not had any gay or heterosexual experiences) was the law changed to make gay sex for men legal, under certain circumstances, now I was over 21.

Not until that law was changed did I become sexually active, mainly because it was only the publicity surrounding the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which changed the law for gay men, which made me aware for the very first time that there were others with my inclinations, and I then sought out (with very great difficulty, as there was no gay press in UK at the time) the places where they met.

I still feel I would have grown up a much more balanced and self-assured individual had I experimented sexually in my teens, and now regret not having done so.

I feel what we now have in UK is a reasonable compromise: an age of consent of 16, when most adults either start earning money or getting loans to go to university, but youngsters who have reached the age of puberty under the age of 16 will not be prosecuted for experimenting sexually with each other. This means, in effect, most countries have two ages of consent – one set at puberty, which can apparently be as young as 11, for people in that age group experimenting with each other, and another one usually set at 16 or 18 for everyone else.

The purpose of an age of consent is to protect minors from older predators who may use their power and authority to persuade youngsters to do things they may later regret. So, even though a 15 year old may look much older and consent to sex with an older person, the law in UK and many other places says that, because the 15 year old is not old enough to give his/her legal consent, the older person is technically committing the crime of rape, and could well be prosecuted. Thinking the 15 year old was older than 16 is not an argument likely to win over a court, the onus is on the older person to make sure the younger one is over 16.

This is the current situation, as I understand it. Those who don’t agree with it must persuade the majority that the age of consent should be lowered, and that very young people will not then be persuaded by older ones to do things they are not really ready for and may regret later.

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