Rethinking the Age of Consent

  • Matthew Waites


What is the rationale for age of consent laws? Should we have an age of consent at all? Is the current age of consent of 16 in Great Britain appropriate? In this final chapter, I return to these fundamental questions, raised in the opening chapters. I begin by reflecting on the history of age of consent debates outlined in the book, synthesising my analysis of the conceptual underpinnings of the current legal age of 16 in Great Britain (that is, England, Wales and Scotland; in Northern Ireland the age is 17). I demonstrate that a re-evaluation of the age of consent is warranted. I then reconsider the British situation in the light of empirical evidence on young people’s sexual behaviour, and the international comparative survey provided in Chapter 3; and following from this suggest that there is a case for lowering the age of consent. To explore the issue further, I examine research evidence on young people’s own attitudes towards age of consent laws. I then return to conceptual issues concerning the appropriate rationale for age of consent laws, beginning with the meaning of citizenship in relation to sexuality and childhood. This theoretical discussion develops from the British context but has wider international relevance. I develop an account of the rationale for age of consent laws via critical engagement with libertarian perspectives on the regulation of sexuality, and moralist, utilitarian and radical conceptions of the function of criminal law; and via discussion of themes including the role of the youth justice system, the significance of individual consent and vulnerability, and the socially mediated relationship between individuals and the law.


Young People Sexual Behaviour Sexual Activity Criminal Justice System Sexual Offence 
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© Matthew Waites 2005

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  • Matthew Waites

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