Debate on age of consent is reality-check for Malta

A 2012 study by the department of health promotion revealed a substantial 40% of Maltese aged 16-18 were sexually active. 

The reality of Malta’s sexualised youth is already apparent to the medical community.
The reality of Malta’s sexualised youth is already apparent to the medical community.

A somewhat dormant discussion was reignited over the past week, with the age of consent taking centre stage at the joint meeting of the health, the social affairs and the family affairs committees. 

With opinions ranging from Commissioner for Children Helen D’Amato personally against the proposal to lower the age of consent from 18 to 16, to the Medical Council’s favourable position, the debate is seeing moral conservatives once again on the defensive.

But the reality of Malta’s sexualised youth is already apparent to the medical community.

Clinical psychologist and trainee sexologist Nicholas Briffa says he has come across people who had become sexually active at the age of 11. Although some of these cases hailed from particularly challenging backgrounds, it was a reality also reflected in a 2012 study by the department of health promotion that revealed a substantial 40% of Maltese aged 16-18 were sexually active. 

“According to research, when the age of consent was lowered and combined with a serious and early, even family-based sex education, the age at which young people engaged in sexual activity also went up,” Briffa said, quoting the Netherlands as an example. 

But he stressed that it was difficult to foresee the effects of such a move.

“It is essential to remember that in order for this to be a positive change it needs to be integrated with a deeply ingrained and early sexual education starting from before children started school, as well as a promotion of stable and strong family relationships.

“Ultimately this would strip away the taboo aspect of things, and lead to teens being even more mature about their decisions. If you remove the shade of the illicit, you remove some of the thrill and normalize it,” Briffa said.

He even pointed out that lowering the age of consent could also ultimately mean that young people have better access to health and medical services and contraception. Away from the fear of judgement, young people would actually seek help from doctors for both STDs and pregnancies.

The Malta Paediatric Association also admitted that despite current legislation, local statistics indicated that the age of sexual debut is on average around 15 years of age.

“The association’s main concern is that the wellbeing of adolescents is safeguarded at all stages… We need to safeguard young people’s sexual health and teach them to avoid sexually transmitted infections and unwanted teenage pregnancies,” the MPA said.

Labour MP and chair of the social and family affairs committees Deborah Schembri said that a move towards better sex education was essential, irrespective of the decision whether or not to lower the age of consent. 

“Young people have not and will not let a law decide whether or not they have sex with each other,” Schembri told MaltaToday.

Her main concern was with ancillary laws. “We need to make sure that if we lower the age of consent, other issues like pornography or defilement of minors retain the same standards,” she explained, adding that it was possible to introduce age banding systems on the issue.

“The idea is that people with a certain age gap, which has not yet been decided, would be able to engage with each other sexually if they wish, without any fear of legal repercussions, but if the age gap is greater, say between a 40-year-old and a 16-year-old, then it would be considered as an aggression.”

Schembri however said she was personally against this idea.

“If we lower the age of consent on the grounds that a 16-year-old can make an informed and intelligent decision to engage in sexual relations, why should we assume that this mental capacity is diminished when we are concerned with different age groups?” 

Age of consent in Europe: an overview

13: Spain

14: Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Montenegro, Portugal, San Marino, Serbia

15: Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Monaco, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden

16: Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, Netherlands, Northern Cyprus, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom

17: Cyprus, Ireland

18: Malta, Turkey, Vatican City

Malta’s limitations for adolescents

9 years old       Criminal responsibility

15 years old    Work

16 years old    Marriage, Voting for local councils

18 years old    Smoking, voting at a national level, driving and sex