Equality at Last? Age of Consent Debates in the 1990s

  • Matthew Waites


For most of the 1990s, the so-called ‘gay age of consent’ was the highestprofile issue in British lesbian and gay politics, with intense campaigning activity and media coverage surrounding the reduction of the legal age for sex between men from 21 to 18 in 1994, and subsequent attempts to achieve an age of 16 (17 in Northern Ireland) from 1998 onwards. An ‘equal’ age of consent was finally attained with the passage of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act (2000) on 30 November 2000. In this chapter, I analyse these debates to reveal emerging social and political relationships between heterosexuality and homosexuality, arguing that age of consent debates witnessed the ascendance of a new ‘hegemony’ supporting ‘equality at 16’, constituted through the interweaving of knowledge-claims generated within the mainstream epistemologies of biomedicine, law, criminology and child welfare. I draw upon extensive research on age of consent debates since 1993, analysing primary sources of qualitative data including observations of numerous parliamentary debates during 1998–1999 from the public galleries of the House of Commons and House of Lords, press coverage and interest group campaigning materials (cf. Waites, 1995, 1999a). Beginning with a brief overview of events and campaigning activity, the chapter presents a critical analysis of the forms of knowledge which were invoked to attain ‘equality at 16’.


Sexual Orientation Sexual Identity Sexual Offence British Medical Association Equality Campaigner 
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© Matthew Waites 2005

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  • Matthew Waites

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