Let’s talk about…The age of consent

How is free contraception for 16-year-olds an argument for lowering the age of consent?

Recently, the provision of free contraception for women and people with a uterus aged 17 to 25 came into effect. However, per last week’s Budget announcements, this age range is set to be extended to include those aged between 16 and 30.
In the wake of this announcement, conversation was sparked about whether the age of consent should be changed, in order to reflect the fact that we are providing contraceptives to 16-year-olds, even though the age of consent remains at 17.
According to Dr Padraig MacNeela in a recent Irish Examiner article, there is a “contradiction there inherently” in the fact that contraception is set to be provided at an earlier age than the age of consent.
However, I’m not entirely convinced that there is such a contradiction. While I don’t doubt the statistics which tell us a significant proportion of teenagers below the age of consent are sexual active (per the 2018 HBSC national survey, a quarter of 15 to 17-year-olds are), which in turn no doubt fed into the extending of free contraception to 16-year-olds, I think it’s flawed to reason that this should inherently mean we ought to consider lowering the age of consent.
Primarily, it’s important to note that contraception isn’t always an issue that goes hand-in-hand with sex. In terms of female health, the provision of free contraception is landmark outside of what it offers in terms of safe sex and pregnancy prevention. Despite it being their primary use, the benefits of taking birth control pills extend beyond preventing pregnancy. They can be used to help regulate periods, ease cramps, and help with conditions such as anemia and endometriosis – which affects approximately 10% of females in Ireland but is often not given enough attention. In this regard, the provision of free contraception to 16-year-olds has nothing to do with their sexual activity.
Yes, there are teenagers having sex before the age of 17 and this is why it’s important to provide them with free contraception, but the conversations held recently suggesting that this is overwhelming reason to lower the age of the consent to have the legal side of things ‘match up’ with the health side feel unjustified. After all, age of consent legislation is, above all else, a child protection measure. Suggesting the age of consent be lowered solely in reflection of consensual sexual activity between teenagers presumes we do not have legislation in place which recognises the reality of underage, consensual, peer relationships – which we do with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017’s ‘proximity of age’ defence. As such, my worry is that more than anything else, a blanket lowering of the age of consent to 16 could put teenagers in exploitative situations with older adults.
In a discussion on the subject recently, Newstalk presenter Ciara Kelly commented that she felt that “we are failing kids”, that “despite our new liberal, modern clothes here in Ireland, (we) are semi-prudish and a bit icky about sex in general and sex particularly for young people”. And while I agree that we still have a way to go when it comes to our attitudes and conversations around sex, I don’t know if retaining the age of consent at 17 is a consequence of prudishness.
I believe our prudishness has indeed stunted our attitudes around sex, sexual health, and sex education. We still have a stretch to go, though it is worth appreciating the work that has been done in more recent years to destigmatise sex and educate people about safe practices, consent, etc. It has been this progressive shift that has laid the groundwork for changing attitudes, and recent developments such as the provision of free contraception and a new RSE curriculum.
I am for sexual liberation and for the realities of teenagers sex lives to be responded to accordingly, for their issues and needs not to be ignored. I think it’s integral. However, I fear lowering of the age of consent to 16 would not serve to help teenagers – in fact I fear it would do the opposite.
Teenagers already put up with being oversexualised, and being overexposed to explicit content online, all while our education system hurriedly tries to catch up to provide the relevant information in tandem to ensure their safety. As it stands, many young people are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the sex education that they receive in school, in particular around relationships and consent. I don’t know how we could reconcile this lack of knowledge around relationship dynamics and the complexities of consent with lowering the age of consent, as it could open up 16-year-olds to exploitative situations before they even finish their sex education.
Lowering the age of consent feels like a rash reaction to seeing the disparity in contraception provision and age of consent. Not only does it ignore the benefits of contraception outside of pregnancy prevention, the conversation seems to disregard how much exploitation this could open teenagers up to when we know they aren’t getting adequate information on healthy sexual relationships. I believe our priority should be continuing to protect teenagers while listening to their needs, not lowering the consent age. Let teenagers have access to supports they may require (which they could need because of health, sexual abuse, peer activity, etc.) without opening them up to potentially exploitative situations for the sake of matching up the age of consent and age for free contraception.