Trigger Warning: This piece contains reference to highly controversial ideas focussing on childhood/adolescent sexuality.
In Seriously guys, it’s time to talk about sex (Lot’s Wife Edition 6), Ellen Flach espoused the idea of a consistent implementation of sex education within Australian schools. Talking about sex is a necessary part of life and it is indeed the obligation of our school system to provide children with a comprehensive view about one of life’s fundamental organic practices.
However, the concept of sex education generates an inevitable question: when will talking about sex turn into engaging in sex? The purpose of education is to put the lessons we learn into practice, but the opposite approach is taken with sex education. Young people are taught to abstain from sex for as long as possible – age of consent laws are put in place to solidify this ideal, effectively telling our society that children under the age of consent (16 in Australia) do not have the emotional maturity to consent to sexual activities. Age of consent laws generally apply to sexual assault of children by adults; at least here in Victoria, they do not prohibit two individuals under the age of consent engaging in sexual activity if they are both over the age of ten, and if the difference between their ages is two years or less.
Despite this, age of consent laws still endorse the idea that children are incapable of expressing sexual liberty. Law, and by extension, society, regards children as not having the psychological capability to consent to sexual interactions, even if they express a willingness or desire to do so. This need for society to safeguard children coincides with the modern concept of childhood innocence. But at what stage does a child stop being a child? And does this stage signify a readiness to engage in sexual intercourse?
The debate over the age of consent has raged for centuries across a range of countries, cultures and religions. By definition, the age of consent is the minimum age at which a person is considered to be legally capable of consenting to sexual acts. In traditional societies, the age of consent was not governed by law, but rather by families who used puberty as a temporal indicator to indicate sexual liberty. Due to changing societal attitudes in the Western world, laws regarding the age of consent were gradually introduced, with ages between ten and thirteen regarded as acceptable in the mid-19th century before being amended to sixteen at the beginning of the 20th century.
Britain was recently in uproar over barrister Barbara Hewson’s call for the age of consent to be lowered to thirteen in order to “end the persecution of old men.” Though her extreme suggestions were at times obscene, vulgar and at best problematic, she touched on some crucial issues that have been championed by many academics and health professionals. While this may be a sensitive subject for many, healthy and informed debates based on evidence and rational, objective thinking should never be overlooked.
Advocates of lowering the age of consent espouse similar arguments to those expressed by supporters of sex-education in schools. It is argued that if the age of consent was reduced, children would no longer be illiterate on the subject of sexual relations. The stigmatisation associated with childhood sexuality would slowly begin to dissipate, and discourses relating to sex would become commonplace in the education of children.
Statistics show that nearly 30% of children under the age of sixteen have already participated in some form of sexual activity. A majority of these children are sexually illiterate, mainly due to inadequate sex education. Few receive detailed advice on sexual intercourse and contraceptives, with many having no ready access to condoms. The only sex education that is divulged to children is vague, euphemistic and often useless. Parents, teachers, and health and education services fail to promote the obvious alternative to intercourse – oral sex and mutual masturbation. Although both of these substitutes reduce the risk of HIV infection and prevent unwanted pregnancies, adults may not suggest them for fear of being accused of encouraging sexual and illegal behaviour. British human rights activist Peter Tatchell insists “this withholding of practical information is partly due to the unrealistically high age of consent, which criminalises under-age relations.”
Reducing the age of consent to coincide with the onset of puberty is an essential step towards freeing children from the constraints of an overprotective society. American teacher John Holt believes that “many of us… still believe and need to believe that children are ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’, that is, asexual, untainted by sexual thoughts, feelings or urges.” We as a society must stop viewing children as asexual beings, and begin to distinguish them as sexual creatures that need to learn their place in a sexualised world.
The views expressed here are not necessarily indicative of the views of the writer. These arguments are presented to encourage and facilitate debate and discussion on a sensitive issue.