thoughts and things

An issue of consent

I find consent an interesting question. As a healthcare professional, I have to consider consent a lot. In my field, learning disabilities, I have to assess, and support others, to assess someone’s capacity to consent to treatment, if we feel that they may not be able to. This is especially in consideration to serious medical treatment. Despite what people may think, no one can consent for an adult (classed as someone over the age of 18). No one. No one can sign a consent form on behalf of anyone else, be it their son, daughter husband, mother.

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 is the Act which covers this, and the assessment of capacity (which is a decision by decision basis), and it is a law we should all know about. Losing capacity can happen to anyone. It can be temporary – in which case important decisions can be postponed. But one day we can have capacity, the next….a stroke, a heart attack, an accident – something may happen which renders us unable to make decisions.

Anyway, back to consent. Consent is so complex. I find it odd that consent and the law is something that many people don’t understand – it can be a grey area. And when it comes to sex, consensual sex, do we really consider the law? For example, last week the government were rejecting calls to lower the age of consent to 15. I find this an interesting suggestion. For one, as I have just said, with regards to medical treatment anyway, once you hit 18, no one else can consent for you. Before this, there are certain tests that can be applied to young adults to see if they are able to consent, and if they pass, then they can. It’s not so simple when it comes to sex. I also think with regards to sex, and the age of consent, there are two issues. One issue is about young people having sex with older people, much older, and whether they have been groomed or forced into this in any way. This is obviously not right at all, and the law is there to bring these perpetrators to justice. The other issue is consensual sex between young people the same age, or within a year of each other, say – it is this issue, that prompted the calls for the lowering of the age of consent, and what I am really writing this post about. There are other issues of maturity, and this issue about being able to consent – not all young people will be able to consent at the same age. It’s a minefield.

When someone has capacity to consent, it means they can weigh up the risks, consequences and understand the decision to be made. This is clear-cut when you are talking about serious medical treatment. The surgery, the risks in surgery, the consequences good and bad. Normally surgery is performed to save, or enhance, a person’s life.

Now when I think about the decision to have sex, I think about the physical act itself. The are risks and consequences to that – STDs, pregnancy, pain, soreness, etc. but there are other issues too – emotional and psychological aspects. How you feel, before, during and after. What you think of yourself, stigma, peer pressure, boyfriend/girlfriend pressure. How you feel about the other person – love, lust, like, friendship. The over arching need to feel grown up, to be your own person, to live your own life. Self esteem, confidence, maybe also fear. Fear of the act, fear if you don’t do it you won’t fit in, fear if you don’t do it, your boyfriend/girlfriend will leave you. Fear because you don’t want to, and maybe you feel pushed into it. A lot to take on board, a lot to understand digest, and weigh up.

It’s a very complex decision. Will lowering the age of consent help with any of this – in regards to two young people who consensually agree to have sex? I don’t think so. To be honest, I am not sure the age if consent really matters to many young people. It is there to protect, to prevent abuse. It’s the line below which it is illegal to do anything of a sexual nature with that child. And that’s good. But when you have two young people, the same age perhaps or near enough, deciding to do this together, the age at which they are, doesn’t actually matter to them. I don’t know if lowering it would help to lower teen pregnancies, or stop 14 or 15 year olds having sex. Do young people think about all of the issues I mention above when they decide to have sex?

Sex education, which covers physical, emotional, psychological and societal issues is what is needed in schools. Education about abuse is needed. We need to talk about it more, and make it less of a Big Thing. This is the information with which young adults can make an informed choice, or ask for help with. This information needs to be spot on, and up to date. It needs to be relatable for young people, and they need time to decide, debate, discuss. Do they get this in schools? I am afraid I did not, and My younger sister, who is 17, certainly didn’t get much input. A few videos we all laughed at was about the most I can remember.

As parents, we have a part to play as well. Personally, I am not sure how I’ll react to the issues of sex when myself and my daughter get to that point in her life. I hope I can be open, and honest, and give her information in a clear and objective way. I don’t want sex to be a whispered word (ala Miranda, if you’ve seen that programme). My mum could not talk about sex unless it was a hurried and embarrassed chat (one time she blurted out, if you get pregnant you’ll have an abortion! At me and my sister – that was the sex conversation, pretty much) or a rude joke to laugh about. I hope I can be a little more reasonable. But in the end, when is the right time to have sex? I think only you know. When I think of my first time, I cringe. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t good, and it was with someone, at the time, I really cared for. But even so, it was rubbish. I can’t say I’ve always made good decisions when it has come to sex over the years. But I had to figure that out for myself. I’m not saying I’d applaud if my daughter had sex at 15, but if she made that decision for the right reasons, for her, and she wasn’t pressured or forced into it, who am I to question that. However, this contradicts the law. The law is there for a reason – but is it the same reason that we all think about, when we think of young people and sex?

What do you think about the age of consent? Should it be lowered? Raised? I’d love to know your thoughts

These are my own thoughts about the issue of consent. I am in no way an expert about capacity or consent for adults or children. If you want more information about these issues, contact a health professional who will be able to signpost you appropriately.


1 thought on “An issue of consent”

  • Such a difficult topic.

    It’s ridiculous to think a young adult is unable to consent to sex one day yet be capable to make the decision the next day upon turning 16.

    I agree that more focus needs to be made on sex education, I remember Sister Catherine sending the boys out the class room to discus sex with us, not sure who found the experience more awkward!

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