Selwyn College Don calls for flexible sex laws

Alistair Cliff – Deputy News Editor 1 October 2009

Selwyn Law Professor John Spencer has created huge controversy after proposing an alteration in the laws of sexual consent, after a 26 year old music teacher was jailed for having sex with a 15 year old girl. The ambiguity in the law was highlighted when Anthony Pitts, judging the case, recognised that the girl consented to the sex and refused a request by the prosecution to ban the teacher from contacting the girl.

Appearing on the Radio 4 programme Iconoclasts, Professor Spencer criticised the 2003 Sexual Offences act, calling it “hardly clear and coherent.” He argued that “in trying to punish paedophiles, it contrives to punish children too”, criminalising consensual sexual relations between two children under the age of 16.

“The legislative overkill”, he said, was “astonishing”, highlighting how the law not only criminalises full sexual relations between two persons under the age of 16, but also minor sexual acts which include “kissing and cuddling”. He said that the 2003 Sexual Offences Act “makes criminals out of children and young persons for doing what children and young persons often do, and what no sane person thinks seriously wrong”.

The Professor went on to draw comparisons with other countries, such as Italy, where the age of consent is 14, and argued that even in those countries exceptions are made in the prosecution where the two participants were of a similar age. He described the British law as “oppressive”.

His comments have created a media storm in the tabloid press, while several MPs described the suggestion as “ludicrous”. Tory MP Ann Widdecombe commented that “the situation is bad enough at the moment with high rates of teenage pregnancies and sexual diseases”.

The issue, however, is not new. Two years ago, Chief Superintendent Clive Murray argued that the law does not distinguish between sexual abuse and what he called “youthful natural instinct”.

Professor Spenser’s comments come at a time when age and sexual relations have been in the news, with Buckingham University Vice-Chancellor Terence Kealey causing controversy after saying that curvy female students are “a perk of the job'”. The comments were made in a tongue-in-cheek article he wrote for The Times Higher Education Magazine, in which he advised academics to “look but not touch”. He went on to say: “Thanks to the accountability imposed by the Quality Assurance Agency (the university watchdog) the days are gone when a scholar could trade sex for upgrades.”

His article was condemned by the National Union of Students (NUS), who said it was insulting to women. NUS Women’s Officer Olivia Bailey said she was “appalled” at his comments, describing them as “completely unacceptable”.

Kealey went on to write another piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement, defending his article as “highly moral”.

He argued that he was misunderstood and had intended to show that “sex between middle-aged academics and young undergraduates is wrong” by satirising the issue.

Alistair Cliff – Deputy News Editor