One of the favourite concepts of the political philosopher Edmund Burke is that of the “little platoons”: all those small, voluntary, self-regulating organisations that flourish in a healthy democracy and which come together for the sake of the common good. I was thinking of this phrase when reading “Unprotected: How the normalisation of underage sex is exposing children and young people to the risk of sexual exploitation”. Written by Norman Wells and published by the Family Education Trust, it draws attention to the vulnerability of young people in today’s ultra-liberal society.
The Family Education Trust is exactly one of these “little platoons”: an organisation devoted to upholding the rights of parents and families within a society that often gives them a low priority. Reading this slim book highlights the profound difference between what the law states in this area and how it is generally applied. For instance, the law states that 16 is the age when a child becomes an adult and can lawfully consent to sexual relations; thus sexual relations when one of the parties is under 16 is unlawful.
Despite this, GPs, school nurses, family planning clinics and chemists – in other words, the whole culture in which young people live – accept that underage sexual activity is “a normal part of growing up and seen as relatively harmless as long as it is consensual.” This begs many questions: is it “normal” for a 12-year-old to engage in sexual relations? Is it “harmless” to their psychological and emotional wellbeing? What does the word “consensual” mean in this context?
As Unprotected points out, this leads to an absurd situation whereby parents have to be informed when young people are given aspirins at school but where “confidentiality” operates when a child asks for powerful contraceptives or the morning-after pill. It can also lead to actual abuse: the appalling scandals of Rochdale, Oxfordshire, Rotherham and other places were not just situations where predominantly Pakistani adult men exploited vulnerable young white girls; they were situations where the local authorities turned a blind eye, not merely because they did not want to be thought racist but because they believed the mantra that the relationships were “consensual”.
As Norman Wells shows in his book, “a culture where the response of professionals to underage sex was frequently limited to the confidential provision of contraception, in order to reduce the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection” and where “an expectation that under-16s will be sexually active meaning that access to sexual health services under the age of consent was regarded as normal and positive, and therefore failed to trigger any consideration that the girls might be suffering abuse”, has led to widespread heartbreak and ruined lives.
Essentially, society has allowed vulnerable young people, particularly girls, to be corrupted and debauched in an over-zealous attempt to safeguard their “autonomy” and their “sexual rights” – while at the same time undermining, obstructing and ignoring the traditional role of parents.
Among Wells’ recommendations are that the Crown Prosecution Service should ensure that “rigour is restored to the law on the age of consent” and that “consensual sex between children and young people under the age of 16 is not condoned.” He also states that the provision of contraceptive advice to young people under the age of 16 should stop and that when advice is requested parents or legal guardians should be notified. He argues robustly that schools should encourage pupils to have “due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life” and teach “the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children.”
Surely such recommendations are only common sense. Do we seriously want to live in a society where children as young as 12 can have confidential access to contraceptives with no questions asked? Family Education Trust is one of those little platoons that we should all support.