LAST week, Faculty of Public Health president Prof John Ashton called for the age of sexual consent to be lowered from 16 to 15.
Online pornography is blamed for corrupting young people
Prof Ashton said society has to accept that a third of all boys and girls are having sex before 16, and that lowering the legal age would not only make it easier for 15-year-olds to get sexual health advice from the NHS, but would also “draw a line in the sand” against sex at 14 or younger.
Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron quickly rejected the call, saying the current age limit was in place to protect children and there were “no plans to change it”.
But Dr Rita Atkinson MBE, pictured, leader of the Abingdon Damascus Youth Project, believes they are both missing the point.
She said: “Every day, youngsters are bombarded with adult imagery and porn through the internet and not just through computers at home that can have parental controls put on them – but through the phones they carry everywhere with them.
“By 14 and even younger, young people tell us they feel like they are being bullied into risky behaviour, such as having sex. Lowering the age of consent will have no effect on that.
“We cannot stop young peoples’ exposure to sex and violence, but we have to keep up in terms of the education and support we are delivering and we have not been doing that – sex education has not changed significantly in 20 years.”
Dr Atkinson, from Sutton Courtenay, is a scientist working on safety in the nuclear industry, and has been part of the Damascus project since it started in 1999.
Damascus is an acronym for Drayton, Appleford, Milton, Sutton Courtenay and Steventon, the five parishes covered by its three full-time youth workers and band of volunteers.
Dr Atkinson said: “Damascus is about working with young people at the grassroots – on the streets, in village halls, in youth clubs – to give them a sense of belonging in their community, building their confidence and helping them make the right decisions.
“Many young people living in our villages are vulnerable and need support – perhaps because of a lack of support at home, economic circumstances, rural isolation, peer pressure or under-achievement at school.
“Some will inevitably engage in risky behaviour, such as sexual activity, alcohol and drugs.
“To truly engage young people you need to meet them in informal settings, on their terms and talk to them in a language they can relate to, and that’s why our three full-time youth workers are so successful.”
Damascus youth workers Gary Hibbins, Ryan Tappin and Roxy Elford are young, credible adults who live in the villages they work within and are passionate about giving their support.
They host a variety of events, including a weekly drop-in session, sports clubs, arts and crafts clubs and job/study sessions, to help engage about 300 young people across the villages.
Programme Manager Gary Hibbins, 28, below right, grew up in Drayton. He said: “I got involved in antisocial behaviour and while there was a lot of pressure to be cool, there was nothing like the pressure there is on young people today.
“Peer Education is key and we do a lot of targeted work, taking the older, disengaged ones on a journey, getting them involved in their community, showing them they have a lot to offer the younger ones and this not only helps them turn their lives around, but also creates a ripple effect, helping to break the cycle for the next generation.”
Ryan Tappin, 20, has been a full-time Damascus youth leader for 18 months, having come through the Young Leadership scheme.
He said: “I was a teenager living in Didcot when I first got to know about Damascus.
“I was going off the rails at the time, but started attending one of the village youth clubs and became a young leader and eventually a youth leader.”
Kyle McCullagh, 16, said: “I think lowering the age of consent will make no difference – it will add more pressure – especially when young people are at school and need to focus on grades.”
While Dr Atkinson says evidence of drugs and alcohol use has decreased in some Damascus villages during the last decade, a new threat has emerged and is exposing very young teens, even children, to pornographic images.
She said: “Social Media – Facebook, BBM and their like – are ways of chatting, sending messages and pictures and videos which have captured young people’s imaginations.
“They are also largely unregulated and can be hugely influential in leading young people to take part in risky behaviour.
“Pornography has become normalised to young people and is desensitising young males, so that young girls often feel pressurised into performing sex acts their boyfriends view as normal, because they see them on their phones and computers.
Damascus yesterday was awarded £2,5000 from the County council’s Chill Out Fund towards its new project, Fantasy versus Reality, which will help tackle what is being shown to children.
Dr Atkinson said: “We want to help them see through the fantasy of social media so they can have healthier relationships. Young people are our future and we need to invest properly in that.”
Damascus has received three Big Lottery Fund grants since it began, as well as local support from Champion Recruitment the five villages.
Mentoring the young to lead their peers
Kyle Dann, 17, pictured, from Sutton Courtenay, has taken part in the Big Brother project.
He said: “I met Gazz (Hibbins) on the streets and he invited me to the local youth club held at the village hall when I was about 10-11 and it went on from there.
“Damascus has helped me overcome many issues by building a strong positive relationship with me.
“I was given the opportunity to become a young leader so as a young person myself I got to lead youth clubs and sporting events.
“Now I get other youngsters telling me they want to be a young leader when they are older, so that’s cool.”
'The current limit does protect children'
THE Rev Lynda Rose, pictured, of the charity Voice for Justice UK, also disagrees with Prof Ashton’s call to lower the age of consent.
She said: “Lowering the age of consent would only encourage younger age sex.
“But more worrying is the erosion of an already flimsy protection against sexual abuse and exploitation.
“The age of consent legally prohibits any adult from engaging in sexual relations with a child beneath the legal threshold.
“The age of consent is there to protect children; not make them fair game to sexual predators and abusers.”
Damascus helps youth to make sense of it all
Young members of Damascus talk about the issues they face, although these are not their real names:
Shaun, 15: “Most sites you look at there are always links to porn or you get pop-ups or friends send you something. Of course we look. What it does is make us more insecure... is what we are seeing normal? It can damage relationships because you could put too much pressure on your partner to do the things you watch.”
Tom, 15: “It’s hard to talk about sex or even relationships with my mum. Adults also maybe don’t understand as much. Teachers try their best but they don’t even like doing it and it’s just from a text book — it’s much better if you have someone who you know and look up to, they wouldn’t judge and could understand where we are coming from — I would always come to Gazz and Roxy if I needed any advice or support.
Sarah, 15: “Everybody lives through social media... the main thing is bullying — people are far less fearful when they are writing comments about people. People don’t realise the damage they cause. Every single day when you log on you will see some sort of bullying. There needs to be more education or workshops on how to use the sites properly.”
Keeping children safe online
USE parental controls on home computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones. Contact your internet service provider for full details of what they can offer you.
- Set ground rules with your child – make sure privacy settings are activated on all their social media accounts; tell them not to give out personal information to people they do not know and to be mindful when posting pictures and videos.
- Children should be advised to tell you about anything they see that worries them or, if they are older, how to report innapropriate content.
www.getsafeonline.org offers age-appropriate tips for safeguarding children, from under five years, up to 13 and over.
Ages of consent
Australia: 16 or 17 (depending on territory)