Sweet sixteen

Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote — and star in porn films? They can marry, leave school, get a job, join the Army and have sex. Yet they can’t vote, drink alcohol or drive. Sixteen — sweet or otherwise — is something of a No Man’s Land between childhood and adulthood.

Yet now the middle teenage year is coming under the spotlight from political parties attempting to woo 16-year-olds with policies which could give them more rights and responsibilities than ever.

The Labour Party, for instance, is hoping to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 — which would give the UK the lowest voting age in Europe, although ironically would likely see the percentage of potential voters turning out at elections fall further. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have just agreed they want to see a relaxation in pornography laws to enable 16-year-olds to legally view and perform in hard-core porn films and visit sex shops as part of a wider shake-up of the party’s stance on censorship.

Of course, there are those who believe such policies are too much for 16-year-olds to deal with given that they are still children and need to be shielded, as far as possible, against anything potentially damaging. The civil rights lobby, on the other hand, argues that individuals who work, pay tax and are affected by government policies and laws should be treated as adults in every aspect of the law.

Both issues beg the question of whether or not 16-year-olds should be given rights and responsibilities currently deemed appropriate only for those over 18. Is there a general trend to recognise 16 as the beginning of adulthood rather than 18?

Currently, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child internationally states that young people be classed as children until the age of 18, but there are historical anomalies in British legislation which means 16-year-olds are given some rights, but not others.

According to Edinburgh City Council’s education convener, the Reverend Ewan Aitken, politicians need to err on the side of caution when dealing with teenagers. “The problem you’ve got is some 16-year-olds possibly are mature enough to take on rights and responsibilities currently deemed fit for over-18s, but some aren’t,” he says. “I’m comfortable with the idea that they should get the vote, but frankly, I think that giving a seal of approval to 16-year-olds to watch hard core porn or visit sex shops is a big mistake. You have to ask about the issues of child protection in those cases.”

He adds: “It’s difficult to make generalisations about 16-year-olds. They are much more aware and have an awful lot more knowledge of the world than when I was 16, but whether they’re more able to handle that knowledge is a moot point.”

And Douglas Hamilton, research policy officer for Barnardo’s in Scotland, says: “There are obviously discrepancies in the law in Britain. You can marry at 16, you can leave school at 16, you can start working at 16, you can join the Army at 16. There are a lot of historical anomalies with that — that’s why we end up with this situation where you can do some things at 16 and some things at 18.”

“Barnardo’s has for some time argued that young people should have voting rights at 16. That’s based partly on the views of young people themselves. They’re working, they’re paying taxes, they’re affected by a large number of government decisions, but they aren’t able to vote. Also, on a practical basis, it would help to get young people into the voting habit — that in itself would have a positive impact on politics and voting turnout.”

“One of the issues about pornography that would be a concern would be about keeping young people safe — and that would have to be balanced against a young person’s right to participate in adult activities. We would have concerns about vulnerable young people at that age.”

But what do those affected by the current debate think? Ella McCram, a 16-year-old trainee hairdresser at Klownz, in Stockbridge, believes that she should have the same rights as 18-year-olds. “I definitely think 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote, as what goes on with the Government affects us as well. When I was at school I thought that too, so it’s not just because I am working now. Schools, colleges and universities are all affected by the Government, so it’s only fair we get a say in what goes on.” She adds: “And at 16, we can legally have sex, so why can’t we watch it or go to places that sell it? I went to an Anne Summers party recently and it was a good laugh. We should be given the same rights — we are mature enough.”

Natalie Hill, 16, from Marchmont, is similarly confident she is mature enough to make her own decisions when it comes to voting. “I study economics and modern studies at school and I know I could make an educated, informed choice when it came to voting. I may be young, but I am not immature or ill-informed. We know a lot more than people give us credit for and I am sure all my friends could make good voting choices if they wanted to.”

As for pornography laws, she says: “To be blunt, if we are legally old enough to do it, we are old enough to watch it, buy it and do whatever we want with it. It’s as simple as that. You can’t give people permission to carry out the act and then take everything else away — if we are mature enough to have sex, then we are mature enough to carry out the rest.”

However, Dawn Smith, 16, from Bonnyrigg, disagrees and says at her age teenagers are simply too young to make informed choices about such responsibilities. “I would like to be given a couple of years as I don’t really understand politics right now and wouldn’t know who to vote for. I think 16-year-olds should wait a while as they can be very immature and don’t think much. They may just decide to vote anyway for a laugh. I think with pornography the age should be 18 too, as most 16-year-olds would be silly with it. Most are too immature.”

Sixteen-year-old Steven Christie from the New Town, who works for Charlie Miller, is similarly against being given added responsibilities. “I don’t think I know enough to be able to vote at my age,” he admits. “I don’t think it’s pitched to us or this age group, so we don’t really know enough about it to be able to vote. I think we need those extra years.”

Mike Smith, meanwhile, says his school has held mock elections in the past, which often result in people voting for the most unusual party which sounds “cool”. The 16-year-old student from Merchiston explains: “I think the Government would need to be careful as we’ve had fake elections at school before and we always choose the party with the stupid name or the one who will get no votes just for a laugh. It really annoys the school so I can only imagine what it would do to the Government. I reckon if we were allowed to vote for real, some would ignore it completely and others would take the mickey.”

That’s not something Samantha Robertson, 18, a volunteer at Edinburgh Youth Social Inclusion Partnership (EYSIP) and a member of the city’s Youth Service Advisory Committee, believes. “I agree that the voting age should be lowered, because young people should have a say in what happens in the policies that affect them, so it would be good for them to have a chance to vote for who they think would be able to facilitate that,” she says.

And John Hughes, a sociology lecturer at Queen Margaret University College (QMUC), who specialises in sex, gender and sexuality, believes 16-year-olds are ready for more responsibility. “If we’re arguing that teenagers are well informed and mature enough to make the decision about whether to have sex at the age of 16, then surely they should be extended the same rights as other adults, like the right to vote and the right to access pornography? But broader questions need to be asked. The idea that pornography threatens accepted standards of behaviour is commonly argued. The right-wing argument that children should be censored from these images is valid enough. The debate tends to oscillate from the classic liberal emphasis on freedom of speech and access on the one hand, to the right-wing concerns of censorship.”

“The boundaries between youth and adulthood seem to be changing as society evolves. We seem to be seeing radical change in society and perhaps this is a response to different expectations placed on young adults as they move towards engaging with the outside world. What I think is interesting is the way legislation is designed to either protect people or extend equal rights. The whole issue around the vote is equal enfranchisement before the law. We need to have a much more sophisticated debate about why people at 16 should get the vote.”

At the moment, the idea of reducing the voting age is simply that and the Home Office says there are no plans to change the laws on pornography. However, Lib Dem culture spokesman Don Foster, who is championing the softer line on porn, says 16 and 17-year-olds are “living in a twilight zone between childhood and adulthood.”

But the Scottish Conservatives disagree entirely. A spokesman says: “We’re not in favour of reducing the voting age to 16. The age of 18 is accepted as being a major turning point where people achieve adulthood. We don’t think that is something which needs to be lowered. If you look at things like alcohol, credit, certification for films, these things are all 18 and we think voting should be along with that. As far as pornography goes, the Lib Dems’ priorities seem to be very questionable. It’s not just as simple as saying the age of sexual consent is 16, so the age to view pornography should be 16. Questions of exploitation come into it as well.”

And as Barnardo’s Douglas Hamilton says: “Laws have to reflect the position society’s in just now. There is a certain group who would say that young people are growing up quicker and therefore should be given more rights at 16. The opposite side to that is that young people can often still be vulnerable at that age and maybe need protection until the age of 18 in some cases. We would be arguing for some commonsense notion applied to interpretation of laws between 16 and 18-year-olds, recognising that young people do vary a lot between those ages.”

By Miranda Fettes
24 March 2004

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