Dani Garavelli: Flawed logic on age of consent hits new low

Barbara Hewson wants the age of consent lowered to 13 and says anonymity to abuse complainants should be removed. Picture: Andrew Crowley
Barbara Hewson wants the age of consent lowered to 13 and says anonymity to abuse complainants should be removed. Picture: Andrew Crowley
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BARRISTER Barbara Hewson’s approach to tackling crime is so obviously effective, I’m surprised some vote-hungry politician hasn’t mooted it before.

What better way to bring down the housebreaking figures than to decide it’s no longer illegal to crowbar your way into someone else’s property and make off with their plasma TV? The problem of vehicle thefts would evaporate overnight if only it was deemed acceptable to hotwire a stranger’s Mazda to use as a getaway car. Not that you’d need a getaway car, given that whatever it was you were planning to do would no longer be of any interest to police officers; particularly if you were old and deserving of protection from unwelcome inquiries into your past. It’s all a matter of perspective, you see. You can’t be prosecuted if you haven’t broken the law. And you can’t be a victim if no ­offence has been committed against you.

It’s absurd, I know. But this is the ­exactly the logic Hewson, who specialises in reproductive rights, has applied to the “grotesque spectacle” of old men – such as Stuart Hall – being “persecuted” in the wake of the Savile inquiry.

So distressed is she about the plight of old-timers caught up in Operation Yewtree, she wants the age of consent lowered to 13. That way, in future, even those guilty of having sex with under-age girls, won’t be. And that will be better for every­one. It will mean fewer criminals and victims; it will eradicate the need to ask searching questions about why – back in the 1970s – some celebrities felt they had carte blanche to touch up any teenager unlucky enough to wander within groping distance or to root out those complicit in covering up such abuse. And, most significantly, it will relieve us of the obligation to make sure that it never happens again.

Strolling through the crumbling edifice of Hewson’s poorly constructed argument, it is difficult to avoid falling masonry. She says the kinds of offences such men are accused of amount to little more than breast-fondling (though Hall admitted assaulting a nine-year-old) and that this pales in comparison with the likes of the Ealing vicarage rape; as if there were a sliding scale of sexual offences from rape at knifepoint, to seducing a schoolgirl to pinching a bottom, to which the appropriate responses might range from outrage to turning a blind eye to winking in a conspiratorial manner. All sexual assault is wrong regardless of context. Trying to turn it into a competition is reductive and demeaning.

Hewson also says most girls today hit puberty at ten (as opposed to 15 in the 19th century); as if menstruation is a sign they are ready for any sexual relationship, never mind one with a man old enough to be their father.

Justifying her call for the age of consent to be lowered, she argues it was only raised to 16 in 1885 in response to a moral panic provoked by journalist William T Stead’s crusade against child prostitution. But the move wasn’t merely the product of what she calls, “the Victorian narrative of innocents despoiled by nasty men”; it was part of a more general recognition that, in a civilised society, 13-year-olds ought to be playing, not working up chimneys or down mines, or having sex.

There are disconcerting aspects to Yewtree; one – as Hewson points out – is the fact police and child protection agencies seem increasingly to be taking allegations at face value, as opposed to subjecting them to normal scrutiny. Another is the way those who were the target of predatory behaviour are being encouraged to frame their experience in the language of victimhood even if they were able to quickly move on with their lives.

But Hewson’s solution, which also involves granting sex-case accused anonymity and introducing a ten-year statute of limitations on criminal and civil cases, is dangerous as well as offensive. Imagine what lowering the age of consent would have meant for the vulnerable 13, 14 and 15-year-olds targeted by a gang of predators in Rochdale. It was hard enough for them to make their voices heard as the law stands, with some social workers insisting they were making “lifestyle choices” even though they were being handed round for sex. Who would have listened if they had been over the age of consent?

Given that most of the victims in the Savile case were aged between 13 and 16, it is also a slap in the face for those who plucked up the courage to come forward; just as their adolescent suffering is finally being acknowledged, Hewson is attempting to delegitimise it by presenting it as sex between two willing parties. Yet even were she to get her way, this argument would be spurious. Just because you can consent doesn’t mean you do.

The way in which the Savile scandal has turned the spotlight on a succession of old men ought to trouble us, not least because it suggests predatory behaviour was widespread. But which is more grotesque – releasing their names to see if victims come forward, then allowing justice to take its course, or robbing teenagers of what little sexual protection the law affords them on the off-chance some of those men have been falsely accused?

Whatever Hewson says, lowering the age of consent to 13 would not only be the most outrageous display of victim-blaming, it would place vulnerable young girls in danger. It would also send out a signal that, just as we finally seemed ready to bring everything out into the open, we have discovered a brand new carpet to sweep it under. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1