Sex and Punishment: How Old Do You Have to Be?

By Maximilian Kiener

 

In March 2022, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed a bill that increased the minimum age for sexual consent from 12 to 16 years. This bill marked a significant change to a previous law that dated back to 1930.[1] International Organisations have advocated for a changed in the Philippines for a long time and welcomed the new bill. ‘Having this law is a very good protective instrument for our children from sexual violence, whether or not it starts online or whether or not it also starts in a face-to-face encounter’, commented Margarita Ardivilla, a UNICEF child protection specialist.[2]

To the Western World, the Philippines’ new bill seems obvious and overdue. After all, most other countries already specify the age of 16 for consent to sex or health care. But we should not feel complacent too quickly. In fact, there might be more to do to protect children and adolescents. Although most countries now convergence on 16 as the age of consent, they still have a much lower age for criminal responsibility, that is they punish children much earlier than they allow them to consent.

 

Consider the following case from the UK. On Friday 12th February 1993 in Liverpool, UK, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables murdered the two-year-old James Bulger. At the time of their appalling crime, Thompson and Venables were only ten years old, an age at which they would not have been able to give legally valid consent to their own healthcare, or to sex. Yet, the authorities considered them criminally responsible and made them the youngest convicted murderers in 20th-century Britain.[3]

Although this is an extreme case, it illustrates a more general fact: the age at which children become criminally responsible is often considerably lower than the age at which they become able to give legally valid consent. Noroozi et al. found that in 80% of countries with clearly defined ages for consent and responsibility, the age of criminal responsibility is still about 2 to 8 years lower than the age of consent.[4]

This situation should make us think. Now that we agree that the age of consent should be around 16, and not 10 or 12, let’s think about the age of criminal responsibility too. Why should children or adolescents be criminally responsibility for their deeds when they could not possibly give consent to anything important in their lives?

 

Those who support a lower age for criminal responsibility often pursue one of two routes, neither of which is convincing.

First, they argue that consent requires greater mental capacity, or reasoning skills, than responsibility. When deciding whether to consent, one needs to be able to understand one’s own prudential interests, values, and the potentially intricate consequences of one’s decision, and doing so requires a great deal of intellectual and emotional maturity. On the other hand, understanding that one should not murder, steal, or break other fundamental norms, is pretty straightforward and everyone with a basic grasp of our social interactions should be able to master this.

But this line of reasoning is not convincing. Morality is not just about regurgitating slogans. It requires understanding, more fundamentally, what we owe each other as fellow moral beings. Moreover, sometimes, the situations regarding consent and responsibility could be very similar. Consider the fictitious case of the 15-year-old Mary who can be convicted of murder but cannot refuse her own life-saving treatment. In both cases, Mary needs to understand the concepts of death and fatal action, and it may therefore be inconsistent to hold Mary responsible for murder but then deny her ability to validly refuse treatment for herself. So, on purely capacity-based terms, a categorical divergence between the age of consent and the age of responsibility lacks warrant.

A second argument for a lower age of responsibility often refers to a policy of being ‘tough on crime’. Being tough on crime means sending a clear signal to children and adolescents that their wrongs will be prosecuted and punished.

Yet, this policy presupposes that children possess sufficient competence to understand the signal. Therefore, this approach cannot justify a lower age of responsibility independent of a psychological assessment of children’s competence. If children at 10 years old cannot sufficiently understand relevant moral and legal norms, there is simply no point in sending them ‘a clear signal’. Consider again the ten-year-old Thompson, one of the children who killed James Bulger, who is reported to have asked the police whether they took his victim James to the hospital ‘to get him alive again’.[5] Such a child is very unlikely to have understood the fatal nature of his acts, let alone their moral repugnance. Thus, being tough on children like him is very unlikely to deter children of similar competence.

 

Thus, the view that the age of responsibility should always be lower than the age of consent cannot be justified. We need a more fine-grained approach and should be particularly critical of wide age gaps, like those in the UK, where the age of criminal responsibility is 10 and the age of consent to much in life is 16.

For this reason, the news from the Philippines about the age of consent should be the start, not the end, of a conversation on how to best protect children and adolescents. It should prompt us to think about the age of criminal responsibility too and reform the law in ways that make it coherent across different domains.

 

[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/philippine-leader-approves-bill-raising-sex-consent-age-12-16-2022-03-07/

[2] https://theaseanpost.com/geopolitics/2022/mar/09/philippines-raises-age-sexual-consent-16

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger

[4] https://ebmh.bmj.com/content/21/3/82.abstract

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger

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2 Responses to Sex and Punishment: How Old Do You Have to Be?

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Cultures advance at different rates, and change comes with the torpidity of a mollusc. Treatment of women remains a global problem, at least as intractable as racism if not worse. I don’t have an answer. It appears no one else has one either. Ignorant leaders are useless. The Council of Nicea, AD 325, proved this. I won’t say modern leaders are ignorant.

  • Ian says:

    Aligning all of the laws would reduce the opportunity for peer pressure towards change and advancement.

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