It is pretty hard to avoid the news about Russell Brand at the moment. I have no intention of getting into any of that. I really have nothing to say about the specific allegations nor do I have any desire to get into the rights and wrongs of all the public disassociation from every quarter. This post isn’t really about any of that.
The reason I mention it is because of a side-issue that has arisen because of those allegations. Specifically, one of the women in the Channel 4 dispatches programme has said she was 16 when these things were allegedly happening to her. That has led to calls, first from the woman herself but since from other quarters, about the age of consent. Specifically, whether it should be left where it is, raised to 18 across the board or some staggered thing to prevent older men exploiting younger people.
The Guardian, of course, has already found itself in something of a conundrum. On the one hand, wanting to see the sort of abusive relationship of older man and teenage girl curtailed whilst, at the same time, wishing to maintain the ability of 16-year-olds to engage in sexual activity with one another. What is one to do when we want the right to say the one is terrible and someone couldn’t consent whilst, at the same time, wanting to suggest those same people can consent? The best suggestion they had was to extend the law governing teachers and those in positions of trust from engaging in sexual relationships with those under their care. Quite how that would have stopped the particular alleged case of abuse of power I don’t know. If Brand did indeed do these things, in what way would he have qualified as a person in a position of trust? I just don’t see how that law could be written to avoid situations at all like the ones alleged.
It is sad that this is the occasion for the discussion. Nevertheless, some of us have made a clear call for some time now. As I previously argued here:
I absolutely agree with the new law. It makes perfect sense to me that children should not get married. Not only are cases of forced marriage much higher amongst those who are 16 and 17, but the very essence and reality of marriage is not something for children. I quite agree with Sajid Javid that we don’t even let children get tattoos until they’re 18, what on earth are we doing permitting them to get married?
Which begs the question why we have raised the minimum age for marriage consent but not that of sexual consent? If we won’t let children get married until they’re 18, and we won’t even let them get tattoos until they’re 18, I’m unclear on the rationale for letting them have sex before they’re 18? We are, in fact, sending the implicit message that you can have sex at 16 but not in any way that might be within the confines of a stable marital relationship. Which, if marriage at 16 is abusive, makes this seem even harder to square.
We are in the incredible position that one isn’t allowed to leave school, cannot get a tattoo, is unable to buy alcohol and cannot register to vote, but is allowed – despite being deemed not to have the capacity for all these other things at such a tender age – to consent to sex. If it is abuse to marry a child at 16, it is hard not to conceive how having sex with such a one isn’t similarly abusive.
If child marriage is child abuse isn’t child sex even more obviously child abuse? If marriage at 16 or 17 is child abuse, isn’t sex at 16 or 17 similarly child abuse? If marriage consent (rightly) gets raised to 18, oughtn’t we to do the same for sex consent? After all, if only adults are properly capable of consenting to marriage, shouldn’t it be only adults consenting to sex?
The usual argument against this, of course, is that what about 16 and 17 year olds in relationships together. To which the simple reply is, we do not seem to apply that same logic to any of these same areas. We do not say, because we want to allow children to make mistakes, we better lower the age of consent for buying cigarettes and alcohol. We insist the opposite. Because we don’t want children getting these things – rather they are for adults only – we make sure that we do not allow them to get them and we prosecute those who would make them available.
The argument comes back that we don’t want to criminalise the children. Except, of course, we do criminalise children over 10 all the time because that is the age of criminal responsibility. Let’s not forget that another story has cropped up in the papers, concerning Jon Venables coming up for parole who was very much criminalised specifically at the age of 10. We criminalise children for much lesser crimes than his all the time. Nevertheless, two further points ought to be made.
First, refusing to lower the age of consent to allow for teenage “mistakes” does act as some level of deterrent. I don’t pretend or presume that it resolve the whole issue by itself. Of course it won’t. But it does deter some. Second, the law obviously recognises mitigating factors and can operate in such a way as it recognises two transgressors are not necessarily the same. There is such a thing as mitigation and judges have significant leeway on these things. Any court would recognise a significant difference between a 30-year-old man grooming a 16-year-old child and two 16-year-olds who have been boyfriend and girlfriend some while having sex. They may both transgress the law (should it change to 18) but the law can still recognise they are not of the same order and act accordingly. That doesn’t mean totally ignoring the matter, nor continuing to act as a deterrent, but nevertheless recognising these are acts of different order and magnitude.
Nevertheless, the matter comes back to the principle. Are we happy with children – for that is what they are – having sex? Are we happy with a situation where you cannot marry until you are an adult but you can still be groomed and have sexual intercourse with much older people as a 16-year-old? Can we credibly call marriage at 16 child abuse and yet not say the same about sex with a minor? If we are appalled at the alleged actions of Russell Brand, and wish to protect young people – children in reality – does it not make sense to raise the age of consent to one that – as for so many areas of responsible adult life – belong to and are reserved for adults themselves?
The case, it seems to me, is obvious enough. It is time to raise the age of consent to 18 and restrict it to adults. Any less, it seems to me, is to say we are okay with children being groomed for sex. I wish the occasion for the discussion were not what it is, but if it has any positive outcome whatsoever, I hope it is this change in the law.