The Last Taboo
The last taboo, at least in the area of sex, is that involving those defined as minors. Quite rightly so, since these are vulnerable and immature victims when adult predators are involved. However there are several categories of underage sexual activity, four of which I identify below.
1. Sexual experimentation between minors of roughly the same age.
2. Where local culture or laws permit marriage or sexual activity at a lower age.
3. So called ’sex tourism’.
4. Where the age of consent is just ignored.
Of these, 3 and 4 are the most serious since they involve adult predators, who know what they do is illegal at home, deliberately traveling abroad or ignoring the law in order to prey on vulnerable youngsters.
I would say that category 1 is to be discouraged, but is not a crime when it is genuine consensual experimentation between minors of roughly the same age. Of course if force is used by one or more of the minors, then it does become a serious offense.
Category 2 is the most problematic since the age of consent, the legal age for marriage and for sexual relations, and also local culture varies so much around the globe.
It is well known that in the Deep South of the United States during the 1950s, for instance, the age of consent was very low by UK standards, and certainly marriages were taking place with one partner being as young as 12 or 13. Often the other partner was considerably older. The often cited case is of Jerry Lee Lewis who married his 13-year old second cousin, Lewis being 22 at the time. Elvis Presley was dating Priscilla when she was just 14. Loretta Lynn married at 13. Jerry Lee’s two sisters were married at 12 and 14.
In Spain I believe the age of consent was 14 at least until recently, and in the Far East (possibly Papua New Guinea) there is a tribe whose culture includes some very dubious rites of manhood involving certain homosexual practices between minors and older youths.
Just because local laws, customs or culture permit or encourage what we in the UK would classify as underage sex does not make it right or permissable. In the Southern States, for example, local evangelical churches actually encouraged marriages at a very young age (soon after reaching puberty) to avoid sexual experimentation outside ‘holy wedlock’ which they termed ‘fornication’, but this does not make it right or acceptable.
So all these practices which may be legal or encouraged by local culture in certain places abroad would be considered illegal in the UK. Take the case of Jerry Lee Lewis and his young wife Myra, for instance. They were no doubt breaking UK laws by sleeping together in their hotel while in London in 1958, even if it was proved that their marriage was legal back home in the States.
In certain Eastern cultures, including Cyprus where my father came from, arranged marriages were, and often still are, common. These sometimes involve girls of a very young age who would be considered minors in the UK.
Exactly what can be done about laws/customs which permit or encourage underage marriage or sexual activity abroad is much more difficult to say. Where it is local custom or religious/cultural rite or pressure, such as in Papua New Guinea and in the Southern States at one time, it should be legislated against by the government of that country. In places such as the United States where individual states have a great deal of autonomy over their local legislation, this could be difficult since it would involve federal government interference in State legislative bodies. Not being an American citizen I am not sure how and in what circumstances such federal decrees over-ruling State laws can be and are enforced.
Where the laws of the country themselves set a very low age of consent it can only be changed by international and internal pressure. What other countries can do, however, is make sure their own citizens do not take advantage of ’sex tourism’ to exploit minors in these countries by prosecuting people who do this.
In cases like that of Jerry Lee Lewis and Loretta Lynn’s husband decades ago where what was legal at home was, and still is, illegal abroad, they should have been told they must refrain from breaking the local laws while abroad, and if they do break local laws they should be deported. It is questionable whether they could be prosecuted and if they were it could open a whole can of worms. For instance, gay adults who had a civil partnership/marriage could be prosecuted if they went abroad where such things were still illegal.
This is a very difficult and sensitive subject. In countries where the age of consent is set by law at 16 or above, this should be observed by citizens of that country and visitors alike. When citizens of that country travel abroad, they should also observe the age of consent at home and not take advantage of differences in laws/culture in other countries.
Only a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly could put real pressure on member countries to observe a universally acceptable age of consent for marriage, civil partnerships or any sexual activity. Enforcing such a UN resolution, of course, would be much more problematic.
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