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Public health expert calls for lower age of consent

Professor John Ashton says a third of teenagers are already having sex at 14 or 15

Mark Gould

Monday, 18 November 2013

One of the UK's leading public health doctors has called for the age of consent to be lowered to make it easier for 15-year-olds to access contraception and sexual health advice. In an interview with the Sunday Times, and later on BBC's Breakfast programme, Professor John Ashton, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, said society had to accept that about a third of all boys and girls were having sex at 14 or 15. He said that there was a vital need to open up the debate and for adults to start "talking about the situation to take these enormous pressures off children and young people from becoming sexually active too early".

"Because we are so confused about this and we have kept the age of consent at 16, the 15-year-olds don't have clear routes to getting some support. My own view is there is an argument for reducing it to 15 but you cannot do it without the public supporting the idea and we need to get a sense of public opinion about this.

"I would not personally argue for 14 but I think we should seriously be looking at 15 so that we can draw a line in the sand and really, as a society, actively discourage sexual involvement under 15. By doing that, you would be able legitimately to organise services to meet the need.

"The negotiation of your first adult relationship in your mid-teens some time is something that will set the record for the rest of your life," he told BBC's Breakfast.

"At the moment youngsters are getting the most incredible messages from pornography, from social media. What we are seeing is more physical abuse and mental abuse in relationships."

He said pornography was causing young people to have "strange expectations" of their relationships and this needed to be "corrected" by open discussion in a sensible environment. He also called for more resources to go into sexual and relationships education in schools.

But the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister both rejected the idea. A Downing Street spokesman said the current age of 16 was in place to protect children and there were "no plans to change it".

The deputy prime minister echoed No 10. Asked on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 what he thought of Ashton's call, Clegg said: "I am not in favour of that. The age of consent has been a British law for generations in order to protect children.

"This health expert is right in saying there is a problem – we have far too high levels of teenage pregnancy. I am worried, like everybody is worried, about the sexualisation, the culture and the information so many young people are bombarded with. That is why I am constantly urging Michael Gove to update and modernise sex education in schools, which has not kept up with the internet age.

"But do I think simply a blanket reduction in the age of consent is the answer to this difficult dilemma? No. So yes there is a problem. Yes we need to a debate. Yes we need to update sex education. But this is not the answer."

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