Exeposé Features online (3 March 2016)
It’s odd – the way we decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. I mean, we all like to think we’re more than just blind followers of prescribed norms, taking the path of least resistance. We assume that our culture’s perception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lines up with some universal truth, but… Man, this is getting deep. I’ll start again: let’s talk about sex.
Ok then. How about sex with 14-year-olds?
If you recoiled there, that’s ok. I did too, when I found out that 14 is Germany’s legal age of consent. In fact, I immediately opened up a Facebook tab and told the Features editors. “Ok, so I’ve just found out that the age of consent in Germany is 14 (14!!!!!!),” I spluttered, adding that I wanted write about “how German teens may be being forced to grow up quicker than British teens (or, they’re legally allowed to, anyway.)”
It wasn’t until somebody pointed out that it’s the same in Italy – and, in fact, in Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Montenegro, Portugal, San Morino and Serbia – that I was forced to awkwardly get off my high horse. By European standards, this isn’t unusual.
But is it right? I asked a German friend what he thought. “It’s an uncomfortable question,” he admitted. “Difficult to answer!” In the end, he decided 16 was probably better. “We can have enough sex later on!” he laughed. “On the other hand, it should be optional for younger people to have sex too,” he added. “But I’d say it’s really more of a symbolic boundary.”
He’s right. Just because teens can legally have sex at 14, doesn’t mean they’re going to. It’s a point many people made when I started mouthing off about the issue at work. However, something about 14-year-olds having sex still made me nauseous. What were my arguments, and were they valid? Time to break it down.
“It means under-16s can get taken advantage of more easily…”
If there’s no law against having sex with 14-year-olds, isn’t that removing a hurdle for potential child abusers?
Right, time for the nitty gritty. It is legal to have sex with 14-year-olds in Germany – but only until you’re 21. Then sex with anyone under 16 becomes an offence under Section 182 of the German Criminal Code (‘abuse of juveniles’).
On top of this, Section 180 (‘causing minors to engage in sexual activity’) states that anyone encouraging an under-16 to have sex with a third person is liable to up to three years in prison, while persuading under-18s into sex for a financial reward could land perpetrators up to five years. It’s also illegal to have sex with an under-18 year old when you’re “taking advantage of an exploitative situation.”
Of course, none of this ‘bans’ sex with under-16s. So it’s true that a 20-year-old could manipulate a 14-year-old into sexual acts and go unpunished in Germany, while British law would find them guilty of statutory rape.
But just because 14-year-olds can have sex, doesn’t mean German law’s abandoned them. They’re still ‘minors,’ still treated differently to the 16- and 18-year-olds, and they’re still protected.
“There’ll be more teen pregnancies!”
It’s just maths – if they start earlier, they’ll probably get pregnant earlier, right?
There is actually a simple way to debunk this theory. Data from the World Bank shows that between 2011 and 2014, Germany’s adolescent fertility rate (number of births per 1,000 women aged 15-19) dropped from 8 to 7.
In the UK, adolescent fertility also fell during this period… but from 20 to 15. So despite its higher age of consent of 16, the UK still recorded over twice as many teen births as Germany by 2014.
Obviously, many other factors come into play here: quality of sex education, for example, plus availability of contraception for young people. However, one thing’s for sure. Germany’s lower age of consent hasn’t created the teenage pregnancy epidemic some (*cough* I) might have imagined.
“14-year-olds are NOT mature enough for sex!”
This was my woolliest point, by far. How do you measure when a teen’s ready to cope with the physical, mental and emotional demands of a sexual relationship? There’s no set age when it all starts feeling right. For some it’ll be 14, others nearer 18… and for many, it’s much older.
Maybe the easiest way to quantify sexual maturity is howinformed teens are. If you know what to expect and how to handle the risks, you’re better equipped to start getting it on.
Now, if your UK-based sex education was anything like mine, you had a ‘growing up’ talk at age 10/11, followed by a day of putting condoms on bananas and giggling through sexual health videos in Year 9. (By which point, coincidentally, one of the girls in my year already had a kid.) Sex education isn’t compulsory in the UK, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be taught what you need to know. Even if your school offers it, your parents are legally allowed to keep you home if they don’t want you learning what Netflix and Chill really means…
But in Germany, sex education is a governmental duty, and it covers topics from homosexuality to abortion, STDs and sometimes even, apparently, sex positions. And there ain’t no getting out of it with a note from the parents.
A German I asked remembered getting the basics in Sixth Grade (10/11 years old). But there’s no age limit. “We discussed genitals and sex with the kids at the preschool where I teach,” one local teacher told me. “They brought it up and one brought a book about it with them so we read it together at quiet time and they could ask questions.”
German culture just seems more open about sex, especially when you’re young. Click through articles on Germany’s largest teen website BRAVO and you’ll find tips on how to delay orgasms, what a guy’s penis shape and size says about him, and what girls really think about during sex.
You can get this in Cosmo, of course, but what about English-language sites specifically aimed at teens? I thought back to the sites I scoured when I was an awkward British pre-teen wondering when my boobs would appear… (Spoiler: they didn’t.)
USA site Seventeen has got a section on ‘Love’ – but focuses mainly on Valentine’s ideas and flirting tips. And the ‘Sex Health’ section? To put it bluntly, it’s all pretty much period-based. No tips on achieving a better orgasm here. Likewise, Sugarscape’s ‘Life’ section is all about those boobs and periods… while the ‘Lads’ page might as well be a One Direction fansite.
I’m not saying this stuff isn’t important. But scanning these sites, you’d almost forget sex exists. Is that the message UK teens are getting? That sex is something only the grown-ups can freely talk about?
To wrap it up (pun intended)… tonight I told a friend I was writing about Germany’s age of consent. “Is it not mostly the same as here in the UK?” he asked. I had to laugh – because that’s exactly what I’d assumed. We’re both civilised countries, right? Surely we agree on the best time for kids to start having sex?
Until recently, I was certain that was 16. And my reference? The culture I grew up in. But despite seeming so alike, German and UK attitudes to sex are worlds apart. And in a culture where 14-year-olds can openly learn about sex, ask questions and properly understand what they’re doing with their bodies… maybe it’s natural that they start putting it into practice at 14 too.
Should the UK lower its age of consent? Well, until it makes those vital changes to sex education laws and fosters a culture where 14-year-olds aren’t embarrassed to ask all-important questions, it’s a no from me. But maybe, just maybe… it works in Germany.