Despite our puritanical roots, Americans are just as sexually liberated as Europeans, if not more so, according to recent studies. Americans tend to lose their virginity at the same age as Germans and Swiss, and, surprisingly, at a younger age than the French. U.S. rates of teen sex, pregnancy, and abortion are also higher than in Western Europe. Still, Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of young people as sexual beings, as evidenced in part by our laws governing age of consent and those protecting children against abuse.
Peter Tatchell, an activist and LGBT rights advocate, tells Big Think that the best way to protect our children from sexual abuse is paradoxically to give them more sexual freedom. Age of consent laws vary from state to state in the U.S., with the majority being 16 and some ranging as high as 18, but Tatchell says they should all be lowered to 14.
“Whether we like it or not, many teenagers have their first sexual experience around the ages of 14 or 15,” says Tatchell. In most states, these sexually-active young people are actually breaking the law and could be convicted as sex-offenders, even if both partners consent. In 2008, a 16-year-old boy from Iowa was convicted of “lewd and lascivious acts with a child” for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, even though the two were dating at the time, she had lied about her age, and she wasn’t pressing charges. For the rest of his life he will have to register on a sex offenders list alongside child sex abusers.
Criminalizing underage sex is not the way to protect our kids, says Tatchell: “If we want to protect young people, and I do, the best way to do this is not by threatening them with arrest, but by giving them frank, high quality sex and relationship education from an early age. This includes empowering them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to say no to unwanted sexual advances and to report sex abusers. Compared to the blanket criminalization of sexually-active under-age youth, this empowerment strategy is a more effective way to protect young people from peer pressure and pedophiles.”
A higher age of consent actually puts young teens at greater risk of abuse by “reinforcing the idea that young people under 16 have no sexual rights,” Tatchell says. “They signal that a young person is not capable of making a rational, moral choice about when to have sex.” And pedophiles can manipulate this sexual disempowerment to their advantage. “Guilt and shame about sex also increase the likelihood of molestation by encouraging the furtiveness and secrecy on which abuse thrives,” he adds.
“Despite what the puritans and sex-haters say, underage sex is mostly consenting, safe, and fun,” Tatchell believes. “If there is harm caused, it is usually not as a result of sex, per se, but because of emotional abuse within relationships and because of unsafe sex, which can pass on infections and make young girls pregnant when they are not ready for motherhood.” And better sex and relationship education from a younger age would help combat both these scenarios.
Stringent laws against underage sex don’t keep teens from having sex (almost 20% of American teens under 16 have had intercourse, despite it being technically illegal); they don’t protect against sexual abuse; and they inculcate a distorted view of sexuality, says Tatchell. “The message we need to give young people is that sex is fundamentally good—not dirty or shameful. It is a natural joy, immensely pleasurable and a profound human bond, resulting in intense shared fulfillment and much human happiness.” Take that puritans!
Why We Should Reject This
Of course there will always be underage people who have sex, but that doesn’t mean the law should condone it. Sex is a very complicated part of human behavior that is too nuanced for young people to understand. In fact, studies have shown that people, especially girls, who have sex at a young age often regret it. One study in New Zealand found that 70% of girls who had sex before the age of 16 wished they hadn’t done so. In a column for Telegraph, writer David Lindsay argues, “sex is for people who can cope with the consequences, physical and otherwise. In a word, adults.”
— 1998 Study in the British Medical Journal about first sex in New Zealand
— Table showing age of consent laws around the globe.