The Prince and the quandary of the sexual age of consent
Recently, there was press coverage that the Queen has chosen to bestow an honour on Prince Andrew, Duke of York, amidst the controversy of a sexual assault case, against the duke; though the case and the various implications of it are interesting – the key reason to take an interest in it is the silent storm that it throws up around the issue of the sexual age of consent, in particular, between two anatomically adult human beings, and the increasing social atmosphere that seems to suggest that a relationship between two people of widely different ages is problematic – or said another way, there seems to be an increasing cultural tide towards the idea that teenagers beyond the age of consent (16) in the UK should not be permitted to have relationships with people older than them. It is a problematic cultural trend for a number of reasons; it stigmatises relationships that are perfectly legal but are regarded askance; it suggests that young people who have opinions enough to make decisions about their careers, university choices, and even the future of their countries are somehow incapable, even if empowered with good information to make fairly prudent decisions about their romantic and social lives, even if that involves relationships with people older than them in years; more importantly, there is the increasingly lost sense of nuance, and actual factual description when issues around intergenerational relationships are reported on, usually in the case of coercion and exploitation; the reportage on the case with Prince Andrew in most cases comes close often to suggesting his accuser was a child. Victoria Giuffre was indeed from all accounts a vulnerable person, for socio-economic reasons, but she was not a child, by definition – a pre-pubescent human being. The insinuation in such reportage is that the party in question is a child abuser; it is dangerous elision not because of the person in question, but precisely because it is a dangerous fanning of public opinion using what is legal but distasteful to some and suggesting it to be something otherwise, or better put – The truth of the matter is that there seems to be a necessary concern about child abuse – being coupled with a huge hysteria around the idea of child abuse – but utilising the idea of sex between adults of wide age differences as the example – which is both a danger and a disservice to vulnerable children. It is also a disservice to citizens to have laws that articulate ages of consent, and then forment a social environment where the exercise of such relationships is frowned upon – ranging from the mildly humorous to the full-blown allegation of the inappropriate; it is true that in Prince Andrew’s case and Epstein before – the case turns around the issue of his knowledge about Epstein’s coercion of the young women; if indeed that is proved then the law will no doubt appropriately run its course; however, there is a wider insecurity around the issues of inter-generational relationships – and it matters less because of the peccadillos and transgressions of the rich, and more because of the poisoning of the public sphere and the vulnerability it imposes on ordinary people, who may in one way or another be caught up in a similar drama, and be easily destroyed in the press without the resources of the wealthy; the recent case of the footballer, Adam Johnson – is instructive, he did indeed have a relationship with a minor, 15 in this case – but the use of the word ‘Paedo’ in the press, is inappropriate and dangerous – the term should be properly and properly applied to cases of abuse that involve pre-pubescent children – both for the protection of people accused given the vigilantism such labels have inspired in the past – and for the actual factual clarity of reporting.
All that said, perhaps, our societies should globally accept that the age of consent should be revised upwards to 18 or 21 for all people and a global social campaign be undertaken to ensure countries adhere to it, and certainly, bearing in mind cultural, economic and life expectancy differences; or more realistically where the age of consent is concerned globally – it should be harmonised to between 14 (the age in much of Europe) and 16 (the prevailing trend in Anglo-Saxon countries), as to countries where the age of consent is lower, clearly there are cultural attitudes to be addressed but it should be noted that not all cultures share the same conception of when adulthood or more precisely ‘the age of reason’ begins (this is for the moment leaving aside the issues of early child marriage, and pregnancy, which is actually the root of much of the damage to young people in this area of life) – particularly where life expectancy is shorter. It should be noted that in many parts of the world (the USA not excluded, people as young as 14-16 join the army, drive cars, emancipate themselves and get married). The global context matters because there is a convergence of the topic of sexual mores and human rights globally with movements such as #MeToo etc, but the legal definitions vary so wildly from territory that it seems to be a shooting gallery for gossip rags rather than a space to provide more safety for the vulnerable; the other side of this is the LGBT rights struggle in many parts of the world, fairly recently, a large country in Africa which has a very punitive anti-LGBT law announced that it was developing a sex offenders register, technically speaking, any gay person having sex and scapegoated for it – would find themselves in the same category with somebody who abused a toddler (e.g. the example of Baby P in the UK), the moral repugnance of such a position should be evident to anyone who believes in the liberty of the citizen and human dignity – in the first case, (the state would be wrongly discriminating against a person on grounds covered by the human rights as codified by the United Nations) and in the second case (the state would be right to step in and protect the child). It also seems that the age of consent laws are inadequate in addressing relations between teenagers, as an interview Peter Tatchell conducted awhile ago highlighted – some instances of relationships between teenagers close in age have resulted in one or more parties getting police records, the odiousness of that should be obvious; as Prince Andrew’s case highlights there are wildly different ages of consent all over the world, making this a global issue – indeed in the United States of America – the difference in ages of consent is harmonised by criminalising transportation of a minor across state lines – which seems a pretty arduous workaround; Within all this is the increasingly complex world in which we are all in, where sexual imagery is ubiquitous, consent and sexual negotiation more nuanced but straightforward sexual education remains complicated – and yet people, including, perhaps especially, young people are accessing pornography at a worryingly early age – without a healthy cultural context around its consumption; it seems that for our apparently liberated world, our sexual values are still mired in the strange guilt and shame complexes of the Abrahamic desert cultures that have defined and controlled sexuality for the past 500 years. It speaks to the fact that society needs a more mature conversation around what healthy sexual development is, and what role intergenerational relations play in the development of a mature healthy sexuality once people enter their teenage years and beyond.
This is written as someone who grew up as a queer person in 1990s Austria; the age of consent was 14, yet the variety of human sexuality was never once talked about in my schooling; the school culture was defined by basketball and Hip-Hop, at the height of its misogynistic and homophobic expression, the religious base of my life was a stultifying, and increasingly conservative Christianity – and lastly, this was in the 1990s, in the period where queer identity was overwhelmingly being identified with HIV and early death, before life-saving treatments changed that narrative. It is thankfully quite different for people now, but I shudder to think what may have been my experience if I was a wilder type of teenager – and I also regret that I did not have any opportunity to both explore and process my sexual development with anyone that could have made it easier to understand at that time, and I specifically would have welcomed such conversations in the educational context. In that respect, I think vulnerable young people, and vulnerable people – period – need strong social support to ensure they are not exploited, and to ensure they are not left in the dark in terms of being socially and sexually empowered. (Something Victoria Giuffre clearly did not have) That said, where the age of consent is concerned – and the relationship is not one of coercion, we should have the cultural and social confidence to say that a 70-year-old woman in the UK who wishes to have a relationship with or indeed just sleep with a 16-year-old is well within her rights, and vice-versa, or indeed, a 95-year-old man and a 25-year-old man. It is true as in the Epstein case that people well within the age of consent can be coerced and forced into sexual slavery, and that requires a robust application of the law, yet it is necessary, particularly for the press, who are after-all the guardians of the public’s freedom and forum of expression to rise above the easy prey of salacious gossip and give us the facts of all matters. Lastly, in the area of sexuality, young people and society, it should be remembered that it was not very long ago in the UK that the idea of gay people being a danger to children had widespread popular currency, as indeed it still does in many parts of the world – based on erroneous ideas of contagion no doubt – in the UK and elsewhere where such cultural and human right battles have been won – it would be wise for us to know that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It might be easy to laugh at the fall of a prince, or indeed a footballer as in the recent case of Adam Johnson, but as the Yoruba saying goes “when you throw a stone in the market, be careful that it does not hit home”, which is to say the right to have intergenerational relationships is part of our society’s fabric of erotic and social justice, and it should not be traduced by an inability to distinguish between the abusive and the merely socially odious, whatever the rectitude of such a position; in the case of Prince Andrew’s, as far as the case goes, it is said anecdotally that if he knew she was being coerced then he would face the law – but if he did not know he might still face charges – which seems an odious contortion of justice, but that remains for the duke’s legal team to address and its unlikely it will turn out that badly for him; as to Ms. Giuffre its clear she was damaged by the situation and deserves redress – whether in this context or elsewhere, including the systems of public support that should have been there for her as a vulnerable teenager; having addressed that though the problematic context of our entire social conversation around sex merits more of a social debate nationally, by which I mean the UK, and globally, especially in the global commons; calling people pedophiles for having sex with teenagers is inaccurate – and a danger to society by its obfuscation of truth; a recent article in The Guardian mention a case of a man alleged watching indecent images of child abuse – there was no mention of the age range, we might assume it – but that is precisely where the problem is – there would be a categorical difference between someone watching images of teenagers (icky, man would say) and that of pre-pubescent children (reprehensible, most would say) –the person was fortunately for them not mentioned but the social damage to their family is quite clearly spelt out, but the potential for miscarriages of justice as well as social violence need not be overstressed. The truth is that human sexuality is complicated, embarrassing and to some extent still evolving, and opinions of how and when such matters are to be addressed with the young often uncomfortable – but it is high time sex – both gossip and coverage of the topic is no longer used as a weapon of shame against anyone regardless of their desires or sexual expression (within the bounds of law), whilst still observing our social duty to be attentive to the abuse of privilege and trust. We would serve those who deserve protection much better if the context of reporting on these issues was balanced, factual and without salaciousness, regardless of whether the person is the highest she or the lowest he; as the case with the Duke of York seems to be both about the matters at hand, and beneath it the bubbling question of what a scandal so close to the heart of the state means – if nothing else, once the matter is more settled, it may put an end to the semi-fiction that it is entirely possible to reign but not rule – but that’s a digression – the lasting outcome of this quandary would ideally be the beginning of a conversation around the increasingly problematic sexual culture of a world that has lost its moral reference around sex (monogamous, heterosexual marriage between a slightly older man and slightly older woman) -and not quite found a way to integrate all its desires into a coherent value system where everyone has a relatively clear idea of who they can and cannot fuck – I suspect these issues will undergo the same cultural transformation as have been applied to the consumption of cannabis in recent years, but that is a wider cultural debate to which other parties would have to take up the mantle.