The age of consent

Sep 13, 2013 by

A significant debate is needed to once and for all tackle the issue of the age of consent throughout Europe (if not wider but perhaps one tangled web at a time). Recent comments by a leading Barrister in the UK, that suggested the age be dropped from 16 to 14, was met by a wave of hostility and incredulity from various childrens organisations and people whose work and lives are committed to safeguarding children.

The debate, however, is much more complex than reactions on an instinctive level. To my mind there are serious anomalies in some of our European partner countries that just don’t seem to make safeguarding sense. Germany for example, the power house of European economy and a country considered to be a sophisticated democracy still has the age of consent at 14 as long as a person over the age of 21 ‘does not exploit a 14–15 year-old person’s lack of capacity for sexual self-determination’

Spain has recently engaged in a critical debate following various cases that have come to light (one in particular where child of 13 insisted that she was having a consensual relationship with a man of 39), this was legal. Now the Spanish authorities are speaking out in favour of increasing the age of consent to 16 but apparently are receiving cultural objections from the large Romany community in Spain, who insist the age of marriage is part of their tradition at 13.

You can’t help but stereotype the Swiss for coming up with solutions that defy some logic, but actually could be applauded as forward thinking. They don’t criminalise sexual activity between young people if there is less than a 3 year age gap. Possibly this is honoured, informally, by many other countries including the UK.

One savage irony, given the very well-known problem of the number of Catholic Priests responsible for abusing children is that the age of consent in the Vatican until very recently was 12 and although they often defer to wider Italian Law, that, in itself only places the age of consent at 14. Now, at last, the age has changed to 18 inside the Vatican State.

The political climate at the moment includes some serious argument about the convergence of European Law and, whether or not you believe this to be a good thing, consistency in such a critical area as this would be welcome. With the inexorable rise in the influence of the internet, and therefore global access, young people are sharing information about each other’s lives in great detail and with incredible speed. Their attitudes and social permissions are influenced by their communities and the value systems at home. So some feel that they should be free to decide sexual activity before peers do elsewhere because the law permits it. The increase in vulnerability and danger to those young people is significant. At aged 13 or 14 it’s like driving cars or smoking, drinking in bars, getting married without parental consent, voting or joining the army. Difficult to accept that there is enough sophisticated understanding to make the best judgement.

Wherever you live, geographical boundaries aren’t always the protection they could be either

Child Protection professionals in the UK always adopt the line ‘when in this country UK law applies’ and that’s fine. But when UK citizens and children are abroad the same must also be the case, depending upon the country you are in. And so, when the tens of thousands of exchange visits take place, the question must be is there clarity and best information available? These homestays and school trips still hardly ever include proper vetting of host families. Impressionable young minds coupled with different rules in different countries are perfect ingredients for grooming, exploitation and easier availability of victims for traffickers.

What pan-European activity is being planned to address this? I haven’t heard of much.  I think it’s about time.

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  1. Tony Domaille

    I often trigger debate on the age of consent in training I deliver. It is striking that the overwhelming majority of people think that anything lower than 16 is unacceptable to them. However, many are primarily concerned about relationships between under 16s and those very much older, without many seeing to realise that those under 16 can exploit too. Research leading to a government funded advertising campaign tells us a third of teenage girls believe some level of coercion toward sex is just part and parcel of a relationship. They are often being exploited by a boy the same age as themselves.

    It is hard to imagine a standardising of the age of consent across Europe but good work is being done to minimise the risks that disparity brings. The charity ChildSafe has championed the cause of making exchange visits safe but it would definitely help if there was a standard approach to this element of safeguarding. Perhaps one of our MEPs could be persuaded to take the matter up in Brussels with a view to achieving pan EU agreement using the ChildSafe model.

    Finally, I think its worth picking up on the blogger’s comments about the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the age of consent. No one can be anything other than shocked and angry at the reporting of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests. But to suggest the age of consent in the Vatican has any bearing whatsoever on how many priests become abusers or how much exploitation takes place is just plain wrong. Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy. The age of consent wherever they are is irrelevant because the majority keep to their vows and do not engage in sexual activity with anyone, let alone children. Those priests who do abuse are hardly interested in consent or waiting for a particular birthday. Like all abusers, they are exploiting their position of power as well as their victim.

    The phrase, “…the age of consent in the Vatican until very recently was 12 and although they often defer to wider Italian Law, that in itself only places the age of consent at 14,” makes it sound as if sex with children was/is commonplace in the Vatican with abusers enjoying a lower age of consent. I know of no reported cases of the sexual abuse of children within the Vatican. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened but the picture being painted is based on assumption. That assumption is probably born out of understandable anger at known abuse but that doesn’t make it accurate.

    The Catholic Church has much to answer for in covering up, protecting priests who abuse, failing to recognise the damage to victims and failing to take the protection of children seriously. What it cannot realistically be accused of is writing law on consent or anything else in support of sexual abuse. Even in 2013 the Church sees sexual relations outside marriage as a sin which is hardly a view that supports the abuse or exploitation of children.

    • All you say has sense but I stand by the thought that, in this world of perceptions and signals, the fact that the catholic church did nothing to alter the law internally was a mistake and, though correct that no known cases occurred, therefore gave some intellectual validation to those who may have been teetering on the brink of abuse–only held back by their fear of society’s sanctions.

      • Tony Domaille

        It would be great to hear what others think. I agree with your comments on perceptions and signals. But the question of intellectual validation falls for me on the point that the Catholic Church’s position on sexual activity outside of marriage is far more widely known than it’s failure to keep pace with the law in the wider world.

        Strangely, the new pope has now set the age of consent in the Vatican at eighteen, breaking with its traditional piggy back of Italian law where it is still fourteen.

        Anyone out there got any thoughts?

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