Wednesday 1 October 2008

Sex, adolescents and the law

Adolescents have sex.

This impacts on their lives negatively in a number of ways - certainly under-age pregnancy is now a very serious matter for public policy concern and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the young is also worrying. It's obviously undesirable to have adults predating sexually on children. It's also highly undesirably that young people of either gender should be pressurised into sex before
they're emotionally ready.

But that's precisely the point.

Emotional readiness does not occur miraculously on your sixteenth (or, in Scandinavia,14th, or in the USA, 18th) birthday. It happens when it happens. I personally didn't have 'underage sex', but then I was a late developer - many people with whom I've discussed the matter did, and most of them think (as adults) that it was a good thing, the right thing for them.

Legislation - the criminalising of normal, innocent and tender sexual behaviour - is grotesquely wrong; a quite immoral step to take. Where two fifteen-year-olds have consenting sex in the context of a relationship however ephemeral, the limit of public policy concern should be, had they had appropriate education to help them make the decision, and did they have appropriate access to contraception. And if they did not, the failure - the 'crime' if you like - is not theirs but ours - society's - for not providing these things.

Personally I'd go further and argue that adolescent sexuality between partners not more than two years apart in age should not be criminalised. We do - and should - expect older people to be more responsible. But a relationship between a seventeen year old and a fifteen year old does not seem to me perverse, unnatural or worthy of criminalisation.

There are, of course, serious issues here around alcohol, consent, and peer pressure. Access to alcohol does seem to me a matter for public policy intervention and I fully support the Government's plans to raise the age at which it is legal to purchase alcohol. But peer pressure is not going to be resolved through legislation. No matter how draconian and intrusive we make the state, adolescents are still going to whisper among themselves about who's 'doing it', boast, exaggerate, or feel left out. Education can address this. Legislation can't.

I don't want ours to come to be seen as the killjoy party, or the party of the old against the young, the spiritual and political successors to the unlovely John Knox. Alcohol we must indeed deal with. But when you pile one thing on top of another, young people in Scotland are bound to come to the view that the SNP is hostile to them, and that is going to cost us votes. But, aside from that, we should not do this not because it is in our partisan interest not to do this, but because it would be immoral of us to do this.

This is not a matter for criminal law.

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