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.