When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s (ok 60s and 70s) it seemed as if the major worry for parents of teens was pregnancy. Unmarried motherhood and teen pregnancy, not to mention abortion, still carried a huge stigma in those days which seems to have been largely forgotten in a complete cultural shift. Fascinating to see how the subject was portrayed in Educating Essex on TV last week, when the 15-year old pupil Sky discovered she was expecting a little girl. She had the baby shortly after taking her GCSEs, and it seems the whole experience for her was extremely positive, as were people’s attitudes towards her.
Fortunately for Sky and her boyfriend, in a loving and supportive relationship, there was no criminalisation of their situation. Through my work however, I often experience a very different and worrying attitude. For me, as mum to a teenage son and daughter, it is more my son’s potential for a bad experience that I think I need to be conscious of. Kids today are sexually aware and sexually active. You only have to look at the cover of any teen and pre-teen magazine to know that, although they seem by and large to behave in a strongly moral way on the basis of what I learn from talking to my kids.
I trust my children to do the right thing but they are at the mercy of their future partners being honourable and honest (and the Police and Crown Prosecution Service taking a sensible view if things go wrong). The relatively innocent fumblings of teenagers ruin young lives. Last year I represented a 17-year old male who had been arrested for rape, quite possibly the worst experience any young man could have to go through if innocent. There is a difficult technical legality in representing a certain category of young males who find themselves accused of rape. This lad had engaged in consensual sexual activity with a girl whom he had no reason to believe was not over the age of 16. For various personal reasons, his partner later made an allegation to the police that she had been raped and he was arrested so that he could be interviewed. My job in these situations is to weigh up the evidence, and help the client to decide whether his defence is best served by his answering questions or remaining silent in interview.
In this example, the young man needed to answer questions to explain why he wasn’t guilty of rape – in other words that the girl consented to the sexual intercourse, and the reasons why he believed she was over the age of 16. This of course meant that he was admitting having sex with a girl under 16, a criminal offence in certain circumstances. He was, if you like, damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
My only hope lay in the belief that the CPS would take a sensible view and not prosecute my young client as ‘not being in the public interest’. Many months of waiting to hear back from the CPS then followed, during which the boy and his family struggled to deal with the enormity of the situation and the potential for a custodial sentence. A horrific situation, and one that any parent of a young male could find themselves in.
But how do you protect them from it? It’s almost impossible, other than a written contract, and proof of age, but that may be a bit of a mood killer. In all seriousness though, make sure your boys are fully aware of the law and it’s consequences. Remind them to make absolutely sure their partner consents to the sexual activity, is not drunk, and to ask all the right questions to ensure the girl is over 16. The consequences of failing to do so are awful and far-reaching. There is a section on the Justice Gap advice guide on sexual offences and youngsters here.
And finally, if the worst happens and they are arrested, make absolutely certain they have legal representation in the police station before they are interviewed.
Kim Evans has spent 31 years working at the sharp end of the criminal justice system - the last ten years in the cells of East Sussex police stations defending people in custody. ‘I'd guesstimate that 90% of my clients have a personality disorder, mental health issues, and, or, serious substance addiction be it drugs or alcohol,’ she says. Kim started her career at the Metropolitan Police as a uniformed officer in 1979.