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Does the age of consent push people to have sex too soon?

Half of young women reported having a first sexual experience before they were ‘competent’. Is it the fault of the law – or is it more complicated?

Very, very few young people said they wished the first sexual encounter had been sooner.
Very, very few young people said they wished the first sexual encounter had been sooner. Photo: jacoblund/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The headline was enough to make you drop your marmalade: half of young women, and 43% of young men, said that they were not “competent” when they lost their virginity, in a survey of nearly 3,000 17- to 24-year-olds released this week. If the idea of sexual competence strikes you as inherently droll, Melissa Palmer, who conducted the study as a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, helpfully subdivided it into four areas: consent, autonomy, contraceptive use and “readiness”. The study looked only at heterosexual encounters.

Consent was measured by a three-option question about willingness: were you and your partner equally willing, were you more willing, were they more willing? This yielded the finding that nearly 20% of women felt less willing than their partner.

Autonomy depended on the circumstances of the encounter, which ranged from “I was drunk/under the influence of drugs” and “All my friends were doing it” to “It felt like a natural follow-on” and “I was in love”. Palmer notes: “Those questions basically established whether the influencer was external to the self – peer pressure or alcohol – or internal to the self, driven by your own feelings.”

Contraceptive use is straightforward, and most young people – almost 90% – had used reliable contraception.

Contraceptive use is straightforward, and most young people – almost 90% – had used reliable contraception.

The question about readiness was: “Thinking about the first time you had sex, was it about the right time, do you wish you had waited longer or do you wish you hadn’t waited so long?” Just under 40% of women, and just over a quarter of men, did not feel they’d had sex for the first time at the right time. “Very, very few wished it had been sooner,” Palmer says.

Only those respondents who answered positively in all four categories were deemed sexually competent. The report points out that there are implications beyond sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies – which have been in steady decline for the past 20 years – for young people’s wellbeing.

Does this mean the age of consent is too low? By definition it must be arbitrary, for as long as human beings are different, and mature at different rates, there can be no objective standard for sexual readiness. Self-evidently, though, an age of consent that would result in a pregnancy that would be physically harmful to the mother must be prioritising something other than the woman’s wellbeing. For that reason, I would put 14 as too young, although that’s the age of consent (at least for heterosexuals) in many countries, from Germany and Macedonia to Madagascar and Malawi. Eighteen seems pretty stringent, though, and is far more common in Africa than in Europe. In South Korea, the age of consent is 20. In the US, sexual consent laws vary from state to state, tending to put consent at 16 (though sometimes 17 or 18). Many states also have “Romeo and Juliet” laws, which reduce or eliminate penalties when parties are close in age.

Suffice to say, there is no direct correlation between what we would think of as the liberalism of a country and its age of consent, nor between the age of consent and the prevalence of sexual violence and/or gender discord, except at the extreme ends. Countries where the age of consent is “at marriage” tend to have extremely high levels of violence against women and girls, although in the Republic of Congo, the so-called rape capital of the world, the age of consent is 18. “The age of consent is a legal issue, which is something that we can’t talk about as public health researchers,” Palmer says. “The countries that have close-in-age type laws, so they don’t focus on the age of young people but the age difference between partners, seem to take a more nuanced approach.”

Historically, the age of consent in Britain was 10 or 12 until the end of the 19th century, but the concept of consent was so different – women having no sexual agency, marriage being taken as a blanket consent – that it’s not comparable. The drive in the 1880s towards an age of consent of 16 was politically underpinned by the child labour elements of the factories acts of the previous two decades, which did more of the heavy lifting in terms of differentiating between adults and children than any moral, sexual crusade. And 16 is where the age of consent has stood since, only examined in recent memory as an equality issue when the age of gay consent was brought down from 18 to 16, in 2001.

So do these laws make any difference to the lived, regular experience of sex, or is their main use for the purpose of criminalising the exploitation of children? Palmer refers to some evidence – not from her own study – that having 16 as a legal age of consent “can provide a useful safety net, in that people can say, ‘It’s not legal’, as a way of resisting pressure to have sex.” But it doesn’t always work that way. Paula Hall is a sex therapist, and clinical director of the Laurel Centre. She says: “I’ve heard a lot of young people say, ‘Rather than the age of consent, 16 is the deadline.’”

In tandem with that pressure is the availability of porn. “That becomes the easier option,” Hall says. “You can have sexual experience without risk.” But there are things you could never learn from pornography. “They don’t have minor mishaps in porn. You rarely even see anyone put a condom on, and never the fiddly bit. Certainly in porn you do not see a guy losing his erection putting a condom on – it’s all so seamless.”

Faced with these professional standards, some people are deferring actual sex for longer. “A lot of the guys that I’ve worked with who use porn compulsively are still virgins at 23, 24, 28,” Hall says. “The longer they’ve gone without a real-time partner, they start making out they’ve got more experience than they have, and they become absolutely terrified of it. They develop porn-induced erectile dysfunction. They worry about living up to the standards they see in pornography; they worry about losing their erection.”

The idea of people having sex when they are not autonomous, or not ready, suggests immediately the world of victims and culprits, but that’s not what people describe. “They’re not necessarily a victim of someone else, but a victim of failure, a victim of their own insufficiency.”

Porn also interrupts the development of emotional readiness, if only because it never mentions it. “There’s a biological readiness, knowing your body is ready,” says Hall. “But there’s the psychological and the emotional bit as well. It has the potential to be the most wonderful, most amazing, most intimate encounter in the world. But it also has the potential to be really quite soul-destroying. It can make you feel fantastic or it can make you feel like shit, and are you ready to deal with either outcome?”

There’s an answer that sounds a bit glib, which is: are you ever ready to have a sexual encounter with someone who doesn’t care as much as you do? Is there any age at which that would be OK? And there’s a very 21st-century answer, which is: don’t let anyone do anything until they have hit full resilience, which is probably at about 35. Hall thinks the age of consent is a red herring. “If we lowered the age of consent to 14 or upped it to 18 or 20, it wouldn’t make the difference we think it would make. What matters is how we talk about sex to young people, and to each other.”

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