Conservative MP Edwina Currie proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would reduce the age of consent for male homosexual activities from 21 to 16. She declared that ‘homosexuality in this country is subject to enforced discrimination, which is now out of date, indefensible and way out of line with the rest of the civilised world. Most nations have the same age of consent for straight and for gay sexual activity - and have done for years, with no problems at all. They do not bother to make any distinction, even when the age is lower than it is here.’
Mrs Currie reminded colleagues that a case had been brought before the European Court of Human Rights, which she believed would have an excellent chance of success. Her view was that ‘the state should be kept out of the personal lives of the men and women of this country. Everyone is entitled to his or her privacy. What my neighbours get up to in private is their business and not mine, and it is not for the state to interfere’. These are in principle commendable objectives which governments have continued to ignore up to the present, not just for sexual activity but also in respect of recreational drugs and viewing images deemed ‘indecent’ or supporting terrorism.
Mrs Currie drew attention to the effect criminalisation had on ‘young men seeking help, whether through counselling, health advice or sex education. They are too scared to come forward and ask for help, as to do so would involve identifying themselves as breaking the criminal law, so they do not come forward’. This argument would apply equally to today’s young teenagers, but there appears to be no appetite from politicians to change the law to allow problems such as those described to be rectified, and which still form part of young teenagers’ experience.
Despite a massive propaganda campaign over the previous quarter century to promote the normality of homosexual activity not all MPs had been persuaded. One Conservative MP asked ‘on the issue of equality before the law, does the hon. lady realise that it is neither natural nor normal to carry out homosexual activity? That is why there has to be protection for young boys. It is a different matter if they participate in that which is normal and natural, but if they are guided into activities that are neither normal nor natural, protection is required.’ Whilst his observations about natural sexual activity are undoubtedly correct, he failed to justify why private unnatural activity needs to be criminalised, incurring potentially lengthy jail sentences.
Mrs Currie drew attention to an anomaly which more broadly still continues to be unaddressed ‘that the age at which a boy can be held to be guilty of rape was recently reduced from 14 to 10, but in law he is judged to be absolutely incapable of making up his own mind’ about his sexual orientation until he is 21. Society still appears to hold the contradictory view that young males as young as 10 years are fully aware of what they are doing when they commit sexual crimes, yet at the age of 15 are still presumed to be in a state of ignorance, innocence or immaturity to consent to sexual activity. It clearly makes logical sense for the two to be harmonised, most reasonably at the post pubertal age of 13 which would become the age of sexual responsibility. This reform would still protect genuine children, bring about an end to state meddling in personal and private activity that is widely practiced by young teens, and would have the additional merit of removing the current widespread societal pathology over normal sexual attraction, as well as removing barriers for those seeking help and advice on sexual matters.
Mrs Currie addressed the fear that ‘changing the law would result in rapacious, middle-aged homosexuals hanging around school gates, waiting to seduce young boys’ by sensibly declaring ‘I wonder whether anyone ever talks to young people. Most of them are inevitably and naturally seeking relationships with people of their own age. One year is the average age gap between partners at their first sexual experience. The idea that teenagers might be attracted to some wrinkled old biddy is preposterous’. The hysteria that still prevails on this matter overlooks the deep physical repugnance felt by most young teenagers to anyone who looks older than the typical members of a boy or girl pop band.
The Home Secretary Michael Howard, although allowing a free vote, personally opposed Mrs Currie’s amendment citing the Wolfenden Report from 1957 which concluded that ‘a boy is incapable at the age of 16 of forming a mature judgement about actions of a kind which might have the effect of setting him apart from the rest of society’. He considered that the key question was ‘to determine an age at which most young men could be said to be mature enough to take a decision on these matters for themselves’, adding that ‘there will still be some young men for whom a homosexual experience after age 16 will have a profoundly influential and potentially disturbing effect’. This may well be true but youths in such a situation should have been provided with sufficient guidance to have developed enough resilience and confidence to make their views perfectly clear by refusing consent and thus avoid entanglement in the criminal justice system. Mr Howard concluded that ‘the way of life that we are currently discussing involves an abandonment of the possibility of marriage and children, which sets those people who choose it apart and which requires the criminal law to give all the protection that it can to the young and vulnerable before they are confirmed in that orientation and before they take that decision’.
The shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair supported the amendment stressing that ‘let us be clear about the issue before us tonight. It is not at what age we wish young people to have sex. It is whether the criminal law should discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. It is therefore an issue not of age, but of equality’. Mr Blair in making this statement encapsulated the main justification of those MPs who supported reducing to 16 the age of consent to homosexual activities. Mr Blair continued ‘I do not believe that sexuality is determined by persuasion. The overwhelming evidence suggests that being homosexual is not something that people catch, are taught or persuaded into, but something that they are’. This was a viewpoint that the majority of people had by then come to share, in contrast to the alarmism that underpinned the 1950s debates. Mr Blair concluded ‘that people are entitled to think that homosexuality is wrong, but they are not entitled to use the criminal law to force that view upon others’.
One interesting statistic that emerged from the debate was that ‘in 1990, 1991 and 1992 there were respectively nine, ten and twelve prosecutions for homosexual offences between those aged 21 and over and those under 21. This contrasts with the figures cited in the 1950s debate when over 90% of prosecutions involved a male below the age of 21. In practice the number of prosecutions of unlawful but consensual sexual activity has only ever affected a minuscule proportion of those engaged in such behaviour.
Mrs Currie’s amendment was lost due mainly to the opposition of her fellow Conservative MPs, but a separate amendment reducing the age to 18 was passed. In so doing MPs signalled their view that an activity which had previously carried a maximum sentence of five years should never have been a crime in the first place. They also confirmed that earlier societal fears relating to the need to offer protection, through the criminal justice system, to those deemed vulnerable had been exaggerated. With the election of a Labour government possessing a huge parliamentary majority the equalisation of the law on the age of consent for homosexual activity was eventually achieved in 2001.