The age of consent: a woefully inadequate concept (and why Peter Tatchell is wrong)

The case of the missing schoolgirl, Megan Stammers, who disappeared with her teacher, has been resolved, with the young woman having been found safely. Unfortunately, some people have used this story to promote their own causes. Last night, Peter Tatchell tweeted this, deciding apropos of nothing that the whole thing must have been consensual on Ms Stammers’s part:

Now, one of Tatchell’s pet causes is to lower the age of consent to 14. He has written volumes on the matter. While he might disclaim the living fuck out of everything he has said, there is still something that sits awkwardly with me with his vocal advocation of this. A man Peter Tatchell’s age should have no interest whatsoever in what 14 year olds are doing (or not doing) in their bedrooms.

The thing is, while he claims the people he wants to see protected are the young people- a 16 year old should not be prosecuted for having sex with a 15 year old- he conveniently forgets to mention that this very seldom happens, and usually only when other abusive shit is going on. Put simply, the law is there to protect young people (usually girls) from older men. When two underage people have consensual sex, there might be a few checks on their welfare, but it’s phenomenally unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted. The prosecutions come when one person is significantly older than the other.

The age of consent is a complicated business, and I find it woefully nonsensical that there’s a magic number of years that happen and then suddenly you’re capable of consenting to sex with anyone of any age older than this figure. Whether it’s 14, 16 or 25, there’s always going to be some people who are more vulnerable to abuse than others. People mature at different rates.

What’s more helpful to examine is the interplay of power differences. Where there is a significant age gap–where one partner is 40 and the other 15 or 16–the extra arbitrary year probably isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference. The problem here is that one person is more than twice the age of the other, with far greater social and legal power. When the older partner is a man, further kyriarchal power differences creep in. If the older partner has a social role which puts them in a greater position of power–such as a teacher–then it becomes even more problematic.

It is these power differences that lead to abuse, not the age. Relationships of this sort will not always be abusive, but there’s so much of a problem with power here that they’re definitely causes for concern.

In fact, the notion of an arbitrary age of consent can lead to problems in and of itself. When girls hit whatever the age of consent is, there’s a certain patriarchal assumption that they’re now “fair game” (TV Tropes calls this the “Jail Bait Wait“; click at your peril): here, there is very real protection for young women, as it seems the only thing protecting them from the creeps banging down their door is the fact the creeps don’t want to be labelled paedophiles. Youth and innocence are fetishised under patriarchy, and therefore the legal boundaries currently do serve as a form of protection, albeit fairly inadequate. Shifting the age of consent down would serve to open up more young women to these predatory creeps who subscribe to patriarchal beliefs.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita provides an excellent exposition of some of the attitudes which allow abuse to happen. We find ourselves liking Humbert Humbert, and rooting for him. At times, we might find ourselves tutting at how difficult and unpleasant Lolita is being, before catching ourselves and remembering that SHE’S A YOUNG GIRL BEING ABUSED BY HER STEPFATHER. It’s a book everyone should read and experience, because it shows you just how easily you can fall into rape culture thinking (also, it is absolutely beautifully written).

Legal protections on the whole are not very good, and what we really need is a vast shift in culture away from retributive justice and towards community accountability. This allows us to respect the agency of young people while still keeping an eye out for causes for concern. And of course, the set of attitudes that allow abuse to happen must disappear.

And that’s a long way off, so what we’re currently lumbered with is an arbitrary number. Maybe it should change; maybe it shouldn’t. The people who should decide this are the ones who are affected by this legal situation: those under the age of consent, and those close to it. At the moment, all I’m hearing is rumblings from Tatchell, when it’s none of his fucking business. He is completely unaffected by this law, unless he intends on having sex with some 14 year olds, in which case he’s completely on the wrong end of the power difference to get a lick of support from anyone. And for him to use a high-profile case to promote his cause is unpleasant. Maybe Megan Stammers went freely. Maybe she was abducted. It is not for us, or Peter Tatchell to decide.


11 thoughts on “The age of consent: a woefully inadequate concept (and why Peter Tatchell is wrong)”

  1. As I understand it [insert I-am-not-a-lawyer disclaimer here] if Jeremy Forrest had sex with Stammers, it wouldn’t just be an offence of underage sex, but he could also be charged with the crime of “abuse of a position of trust” which bans teachers from having sex with their pupils (including 16 and 17 year old pupils).

    Pupils are under the care of their teachers, often acting in loco parentis. Those boundaries are there for very good reasons.

    1. Was not aware of that law, but it;s another good thing to have in the current climate, though will be defunct come the feminist revolution.

      1. If you’d like chapter and verse, my LLB (Google) tells me that it’s Sections 16-24 of the Sexual Offences Act, which makes it a crime for somebody over the age of 18 to have sexual relations with somebody under 18 if they’re in a position of trust with them. As well as teachers it covers nurses, social workers, childrens home workers and so on.

        There’s a bit more info here if you’re interested:

  2. “Whether it’s 14, 16 or 25, there’s always going to be some people who are more vulnerable to abuse than others. People mature at different rates.”

    When I was 18 and a university fresher, on top of being in an emotionally abusive long-distance relationship, I started having sex with one of the hall security guys who was friendly to me and chatted with me every evening and one night persuaded me to go into the deserted dining hall so he could rub his dick on me. I remember getting my new credit card out of my wallet and staring at it, unable to believe that the law considered me grown-up and capable of making these kind of decisions.

  3. Tatchell’s gushing on Twitter about the apparently-incorrect use of the word “adbuction” as it implies force. While it might normally make us think of a wrapped-up-in-a-carpet-and-bungled-into-a-transit-van scenario, looking into the definition and etymology of the word tells me that force isn’t always a factor (Collins dictionary includes “cunning”, too). What we have here is a bloke who, regardless of whose idea it might have been, or how much physical/mental pressure has been applied, has contrived to remove a person, under the legal age for leaving home, from her home and to another country. There’s a good case for calling that abduction, or at least statutory adbuction, much as we have a crime of statutory rape.

  4. “It is these power differences that lead to abuse, not the age. Relationships of this sort will not always be abusive, but there’s so much of a problem with power here that they’re definitely causes for concern.”

    The author seems ignorant to that fact thate there are *clear* legal safeguards in place that make it a serious sex offence (often classified as rape) for an adult authority figure to have a sexual relationship with a young person in there care even BEYOND the normal age of consent.

    That isn’t there as some “arbitrary” nod to Victorian values but a recognition of the fact that an adults in that position of power must be trusted not to go aorund taking advantage of kids in a vunerable developmental stage.

    Tatchell seems blithe to the fact that for young people there realliy is a fair amount of scope for underage and near underage yound people to have sex and not be done for it. It’s far from perfect or clear, but it’s by no way arbitrary in aosme kind of Procrustean sense.

    1. The arbitrary age limit *is* arbitrary, though. The laws surrounding positions of trust are a different kettle of fish entirely and, arguably, more helpful than age of consent.

  5. The laws age of consent as it ACTUALLY opertaes is nowhere near as arbitrary as teh article asserts. The law will be unlikely to prosecute young people of a similar age and similar level of competency.

  6. Peter Tatchell has made it very clear on Twitter that teachers should not have sex with pupils and adults should not have sex with under 16s.
    Did you not see his tweets?

    His point about abduction was that there is a difference between the normal meaning of the word abduction (a person being taken by force against their will) and what happened to Megan (bad though that was). Tatchell has condemned Jeremy Forrest and said what he did was wrong but he has suggested a more appropriate charge than abduction would be “taken without parental consent”. Even if you disagree, he is making a legitimate suggestion which in no way can be construed as endorsing abduction and / or child sex abuse.

  7. Yes if there was to be a vote on this then (for once)that vote should go to young people and only young people, as the law is put in place to protect them they should be the once who get the vote on whether they feel they actually need as much ‘protection’ as is forced on them.
    I have to say when I was a young girl I never had the problem of men thinking was ‘fair game’ I couldn’t get a boyfriend which was very upsetting, but I now realise it’s cause I came from a quite place. It was a bit easier when I was over the age of consent cause there were more guys to choose from, I don’t think age gaps a always a problem, and some times it can even be a positive thing, but the bad senarios ruin it for everyone else.

    I also think that ‘adults’ should leave it for the young ‘victims’ to decide for themselves if they actually are or were ‘victims’ as even when the event has past and the ‘child’ is well into adulthood and should surely by then be entitled to decide whether they were victimised or not all those years ago, they tend to still have this notion hammered into them that they must be ‘victims’ and if they disagree its because there in denial or were that badly ‘groomed’. This sort of bullying and depriving young people (even afterwards when they have gone well into adulthood) of the right to the dignity of the final say on how they feel or felt or should feel and always assuming and trying to convince the young person (even after when they have reached adulthood) that it would have been impossible for the older person to have wanted them for anything more than sex and that they were just beeing ‘used’ (even if the aleged ‘victim’ never felt that was the case) could possibly be a form of abuse it’s self.

    I wouldn’t want to relive my teenage years under the circumstances I did, I would have loved more choice and freedom to have been allowed to make my own choices, I think if i’d had that i’d have been more confident then and more confident now. So I wouldn’t be out protesting if they decided to lower the age of consent by a year or two but feel a raise to 18 or something would (in my view) be an infringement of human rights and most people under 18 and maybe some over would break it (and I wouldn’t blame them) 😉

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