Pointless pulp-tarnishers, cont’d

More trees have given their lives recently, permitting Allison Pearson of the Brownite boredom purveyor The Daily Mail to inflict upon the world the outpourings of her blunt mind. In a throwaway remark, she claims that the age of consent in Great Britain is sixteen for damned good reasons. (She would have to sacrifice her flippancy to acknowledge the non-uniformity of the age of consent across the whole United Kingdom).

Her screed against sexual precocity, in its web incarnation (I was unfortunate enough to read it on paper, where it is accompanied by a different picture), is attended by a picture revealing the upper thighs of a young girl. It does not examine these “damned good reasons”. The reason quite simply is that, despite certain attempts to change the age by statute, it has remained sixteen since the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. What was the reason it was raised to sixteen at that time? It was because of morally censorious journalists like Allison Pearson.

Prior to 1885, the age of consent had been several years lower for centuries. But a journalist, W.T. Stead, used a publicity stunt to generate a public furore about the commercial sex industry, which incentivised Parliamentarians to allow the 1885 Act to pass onto the Statute books. He bought a thirteen-year old child from her parents, and had a doctor examine her to make sure she was a virgin, and went through the motions of getting her into the sex industry. It should be noted that such a “medical” examination would now be the very serious criminal offence of indecent assault (upon a minor, no less).

The Act contained many measures aimed at the commercial sex industry (which employed quite young girls), but also the one central provision regulating sexual relations between consenting persons outside any commercial context: raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. So that old men could not pay for sex with thirteen year olds, fifteen year olds were not allowed to have sex with each other without placing themselves in jeopardy of criminal prosecution. That is to say, if you’re a fifteen year old couple, you can only have sex if you’re sure that no-one in the police, CPS or any sufficiently well-heeled funder of private prosecutions has got it in for you or your family. Nice work. The section of bill actually dubbed the “blackmailer’s charter” was the one about “gross indecency” between males, later used to convict Oscar Wilde, but surely the clause raising the age of consent above the age of biological maturity is more deserving of this appellation.

Stead, from whose further oppression the horny teenagers of Great Britain were saved by the iceberg which hit the Titanic, was the son of a Congregationalist minister. He would peradventure have been more understanding of the complexities of people’s lives, more tolerant, less quick to blunder into people’s private lives had he had bishops to show him the way! Of course, there is the argument that there should be no overall age of consent, but that the matter should turn on the maturity of the individuals concerned, though I seem to remember that proposal being rejected by the Proculians in 267 AD.

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