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Age of consent, underage sex and media panics – what you need to know

July 19th, 2010

Dr Petra

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a particular preoccupation with Western media about underage sex. This has included the media frenzy over 13 year old ‘teenage dad’ Alfie Patten through to frequent media features on teenage pregnancy, abortions and parenthood, to more recent documentaries like Channel 4’s ‘Underage and Having Sex’ or ITV This Morning’s debate on the age of consent which I participated in.

These stories have generated a lot of public attention and added to the general anxiety about parenting, sex education, and wider social and moral issues. Most share the common theme of judging young people (and their families), particularly girls (who are more harshly viewed for having sex). Other subgroups of young people are also demonised (the poor, socially excluded or ethnic minorities).

As a result, discussions on the topic are difficult and usually framed in a moral context. Much of the debate hasn’t focused broadly on understanding early sexual debut, or to identify potential solutions to encourage young people to delay, or to identify what pleasurable and safe experiences young people might be exploring. Instead underage sex is mainly framed in the language of STIs, unplanned pregnancy or coerced sex. This often leads to discussions of sex and teenagers that centres around the age of consent – purely in chronological terms – which sex educators and researchers feel is not a very useful indicator of sexual behaviour.

What do we know about this issue?

Public concern over youth sexual behaviour is mirrored by the tone of a lot of the research within this area which tends to focus on early sexual debut with associated negative risk factors (such as STIs, abuse, unplanned pregnancy).

The literature uses a number of different ways to approach the issue from straightforward legal definitions of age of consent, although as you can see from this resource the legal age of consent for girls and boys, gay and straight varies internationally. Unsurprisingly countries with more repressive regimes, gender inequality and homophobic values tend to criminalise homosexual sex while fixing the age of consent for girls at a young age. Go figure who this benefits.

Other definitions refer to more ambiguous concepts such as ‘early sexual debut’ or ‘first sexual encounter’. Even within this what is defined as ‘underage sex’ varies depending on different research projects or educational interventions with some referring to sexual contact and petting which includes penis/vagina intercourse, while others present it as specifically about penis/vagina sex.

Critics have complained the focus of both research and education in this area has focused predominantly on problem based or sex negative consequences for heterosexual audiences. The specific issues of sexual debut for LGBT youth is frequently overlooked, while the experiences of certain BME groups is under researched or based around racial stereotypes.

Seeing underage sex purely in terms of penises in vaginas has been identified as unhelpful for a variety of reasons, most of which are summarised in this excellent discussion from Scarleteen. There is the assumption from many parents, practitioners and the media that if a young person has sex before the age of consent they continue to have regular penis/vagina sex from thereon in. This may be inaccurate as some young people may have ‘sex’ before the age of consent but not have it again until they are older. Linking of penis/vagina sex also tends to focus more negatively on young women – particularly around the idea of ‘losing’ virginity and ‘breaking’ of the hymen – an idea which current research disputes on medical grounds seeing it more as a cultural and religious construct rather than any real physical one-off event.

Why are we so anxious about this issue?

Clearly thinking about young people’s wellbeing is important, but it is often unclear in debates about underage sex what is the specific issue adults are most anxious about? Are they worried about pregnancy risk? Of a young person requiring a termination or having a child when young? Or a young person catching a sexually transmitted infection? Do they fear it may lead to promiscuity? Or are they seeing as an adult a situation that is exploitative but that a young person perhaps does not recognise as such (or maybe is aware of as abuse but is still subjected to)? All of these are reasonable fears and ones parents and teachers do raise. They also talk about fears of their child or children in their care getting a reputation (more so in the case of girls) or their being judged as an unfit parent or teacher if they are associated with a young person who has underage sex. As this issue is so often framed as a moral debate it makes it very difficult for us to articulate exactly what our specific anxieties are about underage sex.

Why do young people have sex before age of consent?
Reasons Young People have sex before the age of consent varies. It can include curiosity and experimentation to wanting to experience pleasure or feel close to a boy or girlfriend. It may be something they feel they need to get out of the way or believe everyone else is doing. Or it may be down to feeling coerced, being forced or just being bored. We generally focus on the more negative issues, particularly in relation to age gap relationships (or relationships that are unequal in other ways). Discussing more positive aspects of underage sex tend to be avoided for fear of encouraging sexual activity, seeming to endorse such practices, or the concern among adults that they are potentially abusive or attracted to children. This, accompanied by a media which is largely negative about teenagers having underage sex, makes it very difficult to have a clear conversation about this issue in a balanced way.

What are the risks to young people?
Clearly it would be remiss to present this discussion without looking at the specific problems linked to young people and underage sex. The well documented negative issues include:
Unplanned pregnancy
Young parenthood
Risks to reputation (particularly for girls and for LGBT youth)

However this is still very much focusing around penis/vagina (heterosexual) sex. Discussions with young people about kissing, cuddling, communicating desire via text or talking, and masturbation (alone or with a partner) tend to be a lot more positive. Where the focus is on penis/vagina sex under the age of consent there are subdivisions of problems – so unplanned sex with casual partners where condoms or other forms of contraception are not used are seen as inherently more risky than sexual activities which are part of a longer term relationship with a cared for person and where contraception is used.

Given the stigma associated with the first three issues it is understandable people want to prevent them, but sometimes in focusing on them so negatively there can be unforeseen outcomes. Not least those who do seek terminations or become young parents feeling judged negatively, or perpetuating the myth that any sexual encounter will result in either an infection or pregnancy. Such messages give young people false ideas about sex and make it less likely for them to use contraception (particularly condoms) which in turn has the additional effect of making it more likely they may get an infection or become pregnant. So clearly simply focusing on negative outcomes without putting them in any real context or providing advice about prevention is unhelpful.

Moreover it ignores that many young people are exploring sexual experiences with their peers that they enjoy but feel they cannot discuss for fear they are breaking the law, or feel anxious about as they are led to believe any sexual activity under the age of consent automatically is either abusive and/or has negative consequences.

Are particular young people at risk?
Evidence suggests there are particular groups of young people who are more likely to experience underage sex, although they may differ from the stereotypes we expect from the media. The kinds of things that would make it more likely you have sex underage include:
Lack of parental supervision and support*
Lots of pocket money, lots of free time
Lack of hobbies or after school activities
Reduced aspirations
Exclusion from school*
Socio-economic disadvantage
Low educational achievement*
Being from particular ethnic groups (e.g. in the UK African Caribbean boys and White girls are more likely to have sex before the age of consent)
A large age gap relationship*
Peer pressure/bullying
Low self esteem*
Lack of sex education from home or school
Being in looked after care
* also related to not using contraceptives or getting contraception advice/support

So the issue is not just about having sex before the age of consent, it’s related to how young a person is, how in control of the situation they felt, whether they consented to the encounter, whether they enjoyed it, and whether contraception was used (or the sex was planned). The context of the relationship also matters – in terms of whether it was with someone they felt affection for, how soon into a relationship they had sex, and when/how it ended. Many of these factors interact, so lots of free time + a lack of supervision + a lack of hobbies + few aspirations can work together to create situations where a young person might have sex before they felt ready. However other factors can produce contradictory results so while being disadvantaged economically may seem like a very big risk it tends to only be a real problem if accompanied by low educational achievement. So a young person from a poor background who is in a supportive home and being encouraged to achieve at school plus has aspirations and interests will be less likely to have sex underage than a young person who is from a poor background but also is excluded from or doing badly in education.

Prevention – do we need to make kids ‘just say no’?
Clearly situations which are abusive, coercive or unequal are a problem – particularly those that end in violence, unplanned pregnancy or STIs. Simply focusing on negative outcomes is not particularly helpful as already mentioned, and prevention is not likely to be effective if only couched in negative terms of focused specifically on penis/vagina sex. What would help young people is better sex education that focuses on relationships issues and addresses feelings, emotions, confidence, respect, assertiveness and communication skills. Education that focuses on relationships skills as a lifelong learning experience rather than one-off lessons or ‘big talks’ is vital. Delivery from parents and teachers is considered important, and peers are also very helpful. Shifting discussions from this issue from a moral debate to one about empowerment and wellbeing is vital – and our media could do a lot more to assist on that score. Finally reframing this as a youth wellbeing issue rather than a sex one is really important so we focus on aspirations, goals, interests and activities – supporting young people and making them feel valued and respected. Most importantly listening to young people is essential – and often a lot more reassuring than you might imagine.

‘Sexual Readiness’ – a more accurate measure than age of consent?
Research has indicated that a focus on chronological age within a legal framework does not adequately represent sexual maturity. ‘Readiness’ or ‘preparedness’ for sex may be equally important indicators for sexual debut. Meaning not all young people will be sexually mature at any given country specific age of consent. Some 16 year olds may well feel ready and interested in exploring a sexual relationship but not all will. And what constitutes a sexual relationship may vary among young people. Focusing on feeling prepared for a relationship, being able to negotiate with a partner, plan contraception use and be aware how to explore intimacy together is not something that can simply be expected to happen when a young person passes a particular age. Instead we should focus our attention on multiple factors that include physiological, psychological and biological maturity – and how young people feel about their experiences.

Because the focus of research and teaching practice in this area is negatively focused (often for well intentioned reasons) it means we know very little about what young people think about their sexual experiences. Given many fear they will be judged for admitting to underage sex often they tend to focus on (or be asked about) purely negative outcomes. Although controversial if we do not ask young people about a range of experiences they have encountered relating to sex, then we will not be best placed to offer them the in depth sex education they need. It also makes it difficult to differentiate between consenting and coerced experiences and makes it more difficult to safeguard young people most at risk from exploitation or abuse.

What’s the role of parents here?

Parents are often anxious to discuss sex and relationships issues with young people for fear of encouraging early sexual behaviour or being judged by other parents. It is important to talk about sex and relationships issues (see sources of advice below for more on how to do it). Focusing on the positive aspects of relationships a young person can expect to look forward to as they get older is more useful than simply warning about the bad things that may happen – infections, pregnancy etc. Threatening these are inevitable consequences of underage sex, or implying a young person will be criminalised for having sex underage may make it less likely your teenager will talk to you. Remember, a young person who has questions about sex is not necessarily having sex and may be looking for information or reassurance. If they are considering an intimate relationship then discussions with you can help identify who they are in a relationship with and any causes for concern you need to be aware of (age gaps, potential exploitation, issues of control and contraception). These are not always easy issues for parents to consider and you may find talking to other parents, to your child’s school or college or getting advice from your local outreach/health promotion services could be of use in such a situation.

Parents know their children well and are often excellently placed to put advice and education in context. You may be aware your child is interested in adult relationships and will want to prepare them for this and answer their questions while highlighting what positive and equal relationships are about. Or you may notice your child does not seem to be keen on discussing such topics and you may want to reassure them about relationships at a level appropriate to their maturity – not avoiding topics but ensuring they are covered in a way that best suits the needs of your child. Again, reflecting on the messages you are sharing with other parents or friends can be very useful to ensure you are pitching things at just the right level.

Certainly don’t leave any ‘sex talk’ until your child is over the age of consent for your country or state, they will need information well before this. And remember just because they’ve not asked you doesn’t mean they’re not picking up ideas about sex and relationships from other places (like the media and their peers). Talking about sex and relationships spans your child’s life – it doesn’t have to wait until their 16 and doesn’t stop once they pass this age.

Sources of advice/help

This previous post addresses what young people want in relation to sex education and includes evidence about what young people want to learn about positive relationships. It also links to other posts and resources containing advice on how to talk to young people about sex and relationships.
Hawes, Wellings and Stephenson’s excellent review ‘First Heterosexual Intercourse in the United Kingdom: A review of the literature’ (2010) Journal of Sex Research is essential reading for anyone wanting a systematic overview of the literature on this topic, which clearly outlines the different studies addressing sexual behaviour in young people.

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