In 16th-century England, the age of consent was set at 10 years old in an effort to protect young girls from sexual abuse by adult men. In 1875, parliament raised the age of consent to 13; in 1885, it upped it to 16. Now, a leading public health advocate has proposed that the United Kingdom bring the age down again in light of the high proportion of British adolescents who are having sex — with one another — before they’re legally capable of granting consent.
Lowering the age of consent to 15 (where it stands in Sweden) or 14 (where it’s set in Germany and Italy) would “take these enormous pressures off children and young people” who feel they need to hide their sexual activity, said John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health. Concern over running afoul of the law prevents sexually active teenagers from seeking help from adults when they need it, Ashton said. The policy shift would better empower teachers and other supervising adults to provide sexual health education and contraception access to 14- and 15-year-old students. Said Ashton: “They are doing it, and we need to be able to support them and protect them.”
The argument for relaxing age of consent laws is typically focused on protecting older sex partners, who can be aggressively prosecuted for having sex with (sometimes, only slightly) younger people.