On Valentine's Day, Wednesday 14 February 1996, OutRage! is calling for the age-of-consent to be reduced to 14 for everyone, both gay and straight. This would bring UK law closer into line with the legislation in 20 other European countries that have ages of consent lower than 16 for both heterosexual and homosexual relations.
Arguing that it is absurd to criminalise consenting sex between a person just over the age of consent and a person just under the age-of-consent, OutRage! proposes that sex involving young people below the age of 14 should not be prosecuted providing both partners consent and there is no more than three years' difference in their ages (similar to the flexibility in the German, Swiss and Israeli age of consent laws).
OutRage! also wants better quality, explicit sex education to be mandatory in all schools from primary classes onwards. This should include non-judgmental information about heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality, plus practical advice on how to refuse unwanted sexual advances, negotiate safer-sex, and sustain fulfilling relationships. The aim should be to encourage responsible sexual choices based on knowledge, consent, respect and commitment.
OutRage! has put forward these proposals in the week before the second anniversary of the House of Commons' vote against an equal age-of-consent for gay men (February 21).
"Young people under 16 have a right to enjoy happy, healthy, sexual relationships without the interference of the law", says Marina Cronin of OutRage!. "Since children can be held legally responsible for criminal behaviour from the age of ten, it is illogical for the law to say that people below 16 are incapable of consenting sex".
OutRage! argues that the current age of consent of 16 often impedes the provision of effective sex education, contraceptive advice and safer sex materials to teenagers under 16. Many teachers, counsellors, youth leaders and social workers fear that they might be prosecuted, or sued by disgruntled parents, for aiding and abetting unlawful sexual acts.
The present age limit of 16 also reinforces the idea that young people under that age have no rights, which plays into the hands of adults who want to exploit and abuse them.
"Promoting the right of young people to control their own bodies is the most effective way to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and sexually-transmitted diseases among the under-16s", said Peter Tatchell of OutRage!.
"Young people have the right to accept or reject sex, according to what they feel is appropriate for them. We should be empowering teenagers to make their own informed, free choices without the threat of legal sanctions", he added.
"It is important to provide explicit, factual information before young people begin their sexual lives. Early and continuing sex education encourages wiser, more responsible decisions by teenagers during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives, the time when they first experience sex and relationships.", said Peter Tatchell.
The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles 1990-91 which interviewed nearly 19,000 people aged 16-59, found that 33.8% of women and 55.8% of men report having had their sexual experience before the age of 15.
A survey by Lesbian London magazine discovered that a third of lesbians began to have sex with women prior to the age of 16. Project Sigma's research revealed that two-thirds of gay and bisexual men had had a homosexual experience by the time of their sixteenth birthday.
In the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Malta the age of consent is effectively 12 for both heterosexual and homosexual relations. It is 14 for everyone in Slovenia, Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, Italy, San Marino, Albania and, in certain circumstances, Germany.
"The introduction of these comparatively low ages of consent has not led to any increase in the sexual abuse of young people. Teenagers have adequate protection through the laws against rape and indecent assault, whilst at the same time having the legal right to make their own decisions about sexual relationships without being victimised by the law", said Marina Cronin.
In the Netherlands freer and franker attitudes toward teenage sex have led to greater sexual wisdom and responsibility. The Dutch rate of pregnancies and abortions in girls under 16 is less than one-seventh of the rate in Britain, and Dutch teenagers have their first sexual experience at a later age than their British counterparts, according to research by 'Heart of the Matter' (BBC TV, 17 July 1994).
"The best way to protect young people against sexual abuse is by challenging the idea that sex is something sordid that should be kept hidden, and by empowering teenagers to stand up for their sexual rights. Sexually informed and confident young people are more likely to resist sexual exploitation and report abuse than those who are sexually ignorant and ashamed", according to Peter Tatchell of OutRage!.
OutRage!, 5 Peter Street, London W1V 3RR 0171 439 2381