What would be the consequences of an administration setting a lower age of consent for non-reproductive sexual acts than for reproductive sexual acts?
I haven't reached a conclusion on this yet, let alone whether an opinion as to whether the consequences would be desirable or not, but I think it's a question worth considering. (I would like to regard the issue of what the age[s] of consent should be as separate; I have no interest in those currently below the age of consent, not even by redefining them as able to consent.) Here's my working so far. Please help me see the other sides of the argument!
The question of whether there should be an age of consent at all should be addressed. My own opinion on this is summarised well by this concise expression by the Executive Director of the Canadian Alliance for the Rights of Children: [...] unlike adults, children require dual recognition as citizens deserving equal rights and as a vulnerable group requiring extended protections. Generally, as children grow older there is an expectation that they will be held more accountable for their actions and in return receive greater privileges.
It can be argued whether or not consensual sexual acts at any age can ever effectively be criminalised; if truly consensual, then they are a victimless crime. There is definitely merit in the concept that the very young are not in a position to give informed consent and I think we can all agree that non-consensual sexual acts are heinous crimes, whatever the age of the victim. Picking an age at which people can be deemed capable of giving informed consent is inherently arbitrary, but the UK (and, I presume, many other countries) have a concept whereby children under a certain age are not deemed capable of understanding why an action they might have committed is criminal and why they should take responsibility for it. Whether this law is appropriate or effective in practice is another matter (see school firesetting debates) which I do not intend to cover here.
Nevertheless, if you are prepared to accept a minimum level of maturity being required to accept the concept of responsibility for your own actions, and if you are prepared to accept the concept that fixing a flat minimum age requirement is a reasonable way of attempting to put an effective implementation of that requirement in place, the leap to do a similar thing for an age of consent regarding sexual acts is a clear one. Bear in mind that a minimum age limit isn't the only tool conceivable, even if it may be the only tool practicable; in theory, perhaps there could be a requirement to demonstrate responsibility for ones actions in a similar fashion to the driving test. Sounds silly? Well, we're happy to detain those with severe mental health deficiencies, whether for their own safety or to protect the community; perhaps this is a similar sort of responsibility test with a very low requirement.
The concept behind setting different ages of consent revolves around a contention that you do not need to take as much responsibility for non-reproductive sexual acts as for reproductive ones, where there is no risk of pregnancy in the former case and a present risk of pregnancy in the latter case. Of course, these are not the only issues at work, because sexual health is another important factor; many non-reproductive sexual acts can transmit diseases as readily as reproductive ones, so part of the requirement for an age of consent is to take responsibility for their and their partner's sexual health. Both sexual disease and unwanted pregnancies are a burden on the entirety of society, as well as to those who are personally effected.
One argument in favour of such a move would be to change the emphasis of some sexual education schemes in schools; a full education would not simply concentrate on the reproductive aspects of sexual acts and would acknowledge, if not necessarily be didactic or practical about, non-reproductive ones. Such a change in educational practices would hopefully serve to slowly sweep a wave of increasing open-mindedness and variety in sexual technique throughout the nation among those who have been given such a varied education. This alone cannot guarantee people having more or better sex, but the mental health benefits to the country of people having more or better sex could be considerable. It is not clear to suggest whether such a move would cause substitution of reproductive heterosexual acts with non-reproductive heterosexual ones in practice, but official acceptance through legality (and subsequent changes in the cultural acceptance of different sexual practices, often as shaped by the mass media) should send a powerful message.
It is also relevant at this point that such a move would necessarily treat homosexual and heterosexual non-reproductive sexual acts equally. This would be a powerful weapon against homophobia, which would again hopefully serve to increase the open-mindedness of the nation.
This may be a stumbling-point for many and would doubtless cause strong lobbying against the move from religious lobbies. I do not claim to know every religious tradition's views on sexuality, but I am prepared to believe the existence of religious traditions who either firmly believe that (a) the only acceptable sexual acts are reproductive ones for the only function of sex is reproduction or (b) that heterosexual sexual acts are acceptable in a way that homosexual ones are not. I don't wish to ascribe these views to any religion specifically, not least because error here would risk offence, but I would be very pleasantly surprised indeed to hear that no religious tradition subscribes to either view. The issue of whether religious tradition has any place in legislation or not in general is not one I intend to cover.
We also would need to provide more accurate definitions for reproductive and non-reproductive sexual acts. It is clear that coitus (penis-in-vagina sex) without any sort of contraception is a reproductive sexual act; is there a point at which contraception, whether through use of prophylactics or alternative sexual practices, becomes sufficiently effective that the sexual act becomes non-reproductive? Alternatively, are there any sexual acts which might not be able to be definitely described as either reproductive or non-reproductive? This could potentially be an area so difficult as to make the legislation ineffective. A naive demarcation line would be whether a penis enters a vagina, regardless of whether contraception is used or not, regardless of whether internal ejaculation occurs or not, but artificial insemination exists as fact today and I am not prepared to rule out the possibility that other similar advances may exist in the future.
Defining non-reproductive sexual acts, and which events may require external agents to give consent, may be harder still. (I'm thinking of issues of exhibitionism with the latter.) A modern viewpoint is that the extent to which an act is sexual or not depends upon whether the participants view it as sexual or not, rather than whether any particular bodily organs are involved. There may need to be a lower limit set; it may not be desirable (let alone possible) to legislate for - to give but one example - growing teenage boys sharing watching Baywatch or Tomb Raider together as a very low-level sexual act. Equally, the modern interpretation that people may start to sexualise and fetishise objects and concepts at a very young age means that even very young couples may start to enjoy experiences in what is an intensely sexual context for them which the rest of the world may not be prepared to consider to be sexual at all.
Nevertheless, I think it is likely to be possible to identify the majority of overtly sexual, genitalia-focused non-reproductive acts and probably the very vast majority of those which might engender a risk of transferring a sexually transmissible disease. These surely represent a higher risk to the community at large than those which do not.
Lastly, there is the issue of what changing attitudes to sexuality might do to the behaviour of the nation in other ways. Would a nation more comfortable and practiced with non-reproductive sexual acts have better health, lower crime or higher productivity than one which did not? Might a decrease in emphasis on reproductive sexual acts lead to the collapse of the traditional family unit as we know it and a plummeting birth rate? (If so, would this be a bad thing?) Are we excessively irresponsible as a nation already and should we be looking to changes to increase the amount of responsibility that people habitually take for their actions? Completely beyond me, I'm afraid. :-) My naive interpretation - though not nearly a conclusion - is that the potential good points outweigh the bad, but I'm definitely looking for alternative and informed viewpoints on this one.