From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. Enough sex in one sentence to give any Tory bigot a heart attack. Particularly when it is their sex lives that are being exposed. For years the very same people who have been telling us what we can and can’t do in bed (or anywhere else) have been doing all the things they told us not to.
That the Tories are liars and hypocrites in their personal as well as their political lives is no surprise to most socialists. But when it’s plastered all over the Tory press it leaves most people sickened by the hypocrisy.
Various Tory MPs and one or two national newspaper editors have paid tribute to Tory MP Stephen Milligan, who they regarded as a ‘rising star’ in the Tory Party. His sexual life was a private matter, they argue.
On this I can agree. What people do for sexual pleasure is of no concern to anyone else as long as the participants consent to it. I think most socialists would agree with this view. Unfortunately many MPs do not share the sentiment.
Look at the disgusting vote for bigotry in parliament when MPs voted to lower the age of consent for gay men just to 18 – two years older than for heterosexuals.
Even those who have defended Stephen Milligan voted against equalising the age of consent.
I have yet to find a single socialist who doesn’t believe that whether you are gay or straight the age of consent should be equal, that 16-year-old gay men are just as ready to have sexual relationships as any other 16-year-old.
Labour MPs – including two shadow cabinet ministers, Ann Taylor and David Blunkett – voted for 18 thus continuing anti-gay discrimination. Had Labour all voted for 16, the measure would have been passed.
But what is so special about reaching the age of 16? As things stand somebody’s age has become a convenient measure of an individual’s maturity and responsibility. At 16 you can smoke cigarettes legally, at 17 you can drive a car legally, and from 18 you can occasionally vote for who governs you. Whether any of these age-related rights are justified is very debateable.
Each individual matures at different rates according to how they respond to different experiences as they grow older. Many young people feel ready to have sex before they are 16 and many do so, regardless of the law.
An age of consent doesn’t stop young people having sex any more than laws against buggery stop people having anal sex. What people do in bed – when it takes place with consent – is thankfully impossible to police. And almost every determined teenager will find some way to have sex no matter how repressive their parents are.
The present law doesn’t stop teenage sex. All it does is criminalise it, making it harder for young people to get contraceptives, advice about safe sex and healthcare. The age of consent doesn’t protect young people, as the bigots like to argue, it only results in putting sexually active young people at risk of disease and unwanted pregnancy. It also puts them at risk of prosecution.
But what about protecting children from exploitation or abuse by adults? The rape and abuse of children is one of the most horrifying of crimes one person can commit against another. This reflects just how distorted people’s sex lives are in capitalist society. But rape and abuse are acts of compulsion against the free will of another individual. This is the exact opposite of what I’m arguing for – sexual relations based purely on consensual sexuality, not on whether you enjoy sadomasochistic sex and certainly not on how old you are.
Exactly when an individual is freely consenting is a more difficult subject. For example, is a 12-year-old girl able to fully understand and independently consent to having sex with an adult? These cases, if any compulsion is suggested, can only be dealt with individually, not by creating a magic age of consent.
A recent case covered in the Independent and the Guardian reported a 50-year-old art teacher found guilty of ‘unlawful’ intercourse with a pupil who had only been 13 years old when their relationship started.
The prosecution proceeded not on the basis of any complaint by the pupil who was fully consenting, but because the girl’s diaries were discovered. The trial resulted in the man being jailed for nine months. I expect the age difference in this case is probably exceptional (also immaterial).
A recent study among gay men supposedly ‘easy prey’ to older, experienced men found that most had had their first sexual experiences with someone of roughly the same age. I would expect any similar research among heterosexuals to provide similar findings. Most young people have their first sexual experiences with people of a similar age. Why should the law or anyone else stop them?
In the context of the current debate about the age of consent we should be unequivocally for equalising the age of consent for everyone at 16. But the struggle for genuine sexual liberation is inseparable from the struggle for a socialist society. It is only such a society, based on real freedom, that will enable people to fully control their sex lives.
I think an age of consent will not be needed then and is of no use today.
Last updated: 8 March 2017