Last edited: December 17, 2004

UK to Review Sex Laws

PlanetOut News, May 19, 2000

Summary: Archaic laws - like the one that punishes men kissing in public with a five-year jail sentence - are targeted in a sweeping reform plan being considered in Britain.

An official committee reviewing sexual offenses law in England and Wales has completed the work it began in January 1999 and passed on to Cabinet ministers its sweeping recommendations for reform, the British Government announced May 19. The recommendations are likely to result in the biggest overhaul of its kind in a century. Home Secretary Jack Straw has noted previously that ending discrimination based on sexual orientation will require more than just the equalization of the age of consent that is now before the parliament, and he is looking for the package to meet the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights, which in a few months will become part of British law as the Human Rights Act.

Gay-supportive Liberal Democratic MP Evan Harris said, "These reforms will start to bring our sex laws out of the 19th century, if not yet into the 21st century." The national gay and lesbian advocacy group Stonewall has been actively involved in the legal review process, and there has also been extensive consultation with religious groups and charities as well as various specialists and attorneys.

No details are available yet, but the report will be published in July and available for public comment before any new legislation is drafted. Ministers are reportedly bracing themselves for a wave of opposition, given the furor over the Labour Government’s attempts to lower the age of consent for sex between men (currently 18) to match that for heterosexual acts (currently 16 in Britain and Wales and 17 in Northern Ireland) and to repeal Section 28, the never-enforced Thatcher-era prohibition against local governments devoting resources to the "promotion" of homosexuality.

A number of the laws are archaic (up to 200 years old in some cases), conflict with other statues, and make inappropriate distinctions between men and women as well as between heterosexual and homosexual acts. For example, two men kissing in public can qualify as gross indecency punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Charges of importuning are more broadly applied to men, who can be imprisoned for them, than to women, who cannot be imprisoned for them. Only men can be charged with indecent exposure or pimping.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters, "What it’s about is giving greater protection to people from sex crimes, and to children. It’s about how we can punish abusers more effectively and ensure people can live without fear." Stronger laws will be proposed to protect male victims of sexual assaults, as well as children exploited by adults in positions of authority and women victims of "date rape." Such terms as gross indecency, incest, indecent exposure, oral sex, pimping, prostitution, and rape will be redefined. Currently, incest applies only to blood relatives, not to step-parents or in-laws. Different charges apply to men and women for consensual sex with underage minors. Even more anomalously, in consensual contacts between adults and minors, foreplay can be charged as indecent assault punishable by up to ten years imprisonment while unlawful intercourse has a maximum penalty of two years.

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