This week, Sarah Carter, of the Family Education Trust, caused a media storm when she told a sitting of the Commons Education Select Committee that guidance from from sexual health and advice service ‘Brook’ suggests that sex between thirteen year olds is normal. Her concerns centre on the “Traffic Light Tool” a guide to age appropriate sexual acitivity, which has been developed to help professionals gauge whether a child’s behaviour is healthy or unhealthy. Carter argues that the tool is unlawful because sexual intercourse in children aged 13-17 is categorised as a green light, which means it is considered ‘normal’.
The Traffic Light Tool was developed by Brook and there is a link to it from within the Sex and Relationships (SRE) Supplementary Advice produced jointly by Brook, the Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) Association and the Sex Education Forum. The Traffic Light Tool isn’t intended for use in sex and relationships education lessons, so it was only brought up in the context of being listed as one resource, among many, linked to within the SRE Supplementary Advice, which was discussed by the Education Select Committee.
Joe Hayman, chief executive of the PSHE Association, who also appeared before the Education Select Committee, pointed out that the tool was simply trying to “deal with children’s realities”. This argument was met with a predictable response from committee chairman Graham Stuart, who said “not to send out a message that it’s wrong, that it’s harmful, it’s dangerous, is in fact to almost to collude with something which we know is damaging to young people”.
Where’s the evidence for that Graham? Results from the latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL 2013) show that 31% of men and 29% of women had their first sexual experience before the age of 16. Clearly, if underage sex was harmful, or dangerous, we’d be in a right old state, but the reality is, most people who have sex before they are legally allowed to manage to get through the experience unscathed.
I don’t think we should lower the age of consent, but I do think we need to be realistic. The media furore about The Traffic Light Tool reflects societies deep-rooted discomfort with the idea of teenagers exploring sex, but one third of the population is sexually active below the age of consent whether we like it, or not. Sarah Carter thinks we should we ignore that fact. Brook thinks we should try and educate professionals so that they can respond appropriately if any of them need help. What do you think?