Don’t criminalise teen relationships

The sex life of a teenager can be weird, but the plan to treat it as a potential site of domestic violence is bonkers.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics

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The expansion of the UK government’s definition of ‘domestic violence’, which was announced by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg last week, was explicitly prompted by concerns regarding teenage relationships. The new definition will lower the age at which a complainant will be considered a victim of domestic violence from 18 to 16. Clegg, speaking at an NSPCC event, said: ‘We’re saying to youngsters, even if you are 16 or 17, you can be trapped in that kind of [abusive] relationship, you don’t need to put up with that kind of abuse.’

The announcement follows findings by the British Crime Survey that young people are more likely to suffer ‘partner abuse’ than any other age group, with 12.7 per cent of women and 6.2 per cent of men aged 16 to 19 having experienced some kind of domestic abuse in the past year.

The setting of Clegg’s announcement was apt, given that abusive teenagers have been on the NSPCC’s mind for some time. In September 2009, the NSPCC published a research report, in association with the University of Bristol, entitled Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships. The definitions employed in the report were watered down in order to deal with the amorphous nature of teenage relationships. ‘Partner’ was defined as ‘any young person with whom [another young person] had been intimate’. ‘Partner emotional violence’ included ‘being made fun of’ and ‘constantly being checked up on by your partner’. Unsurprisingly, three quarters of girls and half of all boys indicated that they had suffered such ‘partner violence’ in the course of their relationships. The report went on to note that ‘the level of coercive control in young people’s relationships was highly worrying. Girls were most often affected, experiencing high levels of control over where they could go, who they could see or what they could do. Often girls were under constant surveillance through the use of online technologies, mobile telephones and text messaging. Control often resulted in isolation from peer networks.’

While the NSPCC was busy rebranding young people as sadistic stalkers, the Home Office has also been fretting about teenage domestic violence. In 2009 it set up a campaign website with the charming title, ‘This is Abuse’. The principal aim of the website appears to be to make young people think of themselves as abused or abusive, in order that they seek help from the local school counsellor. The website included a section called ‘Am I abusive?’, with a link to allow young people to email a board of counsellors for help in controlling their behaviour. The counsellors could be very busy given that it suggests that common behaviour like ‘getting angry or jealous when (your partner wants) to spend time with their friends’ could amount to abuse.

More worryingly, the website purports to help young people identify when they have been raped by offering completely inaccurate definitions of what rape is. The front page of the site reads: ‘Anyone who has been pressured to have sex without giving their consent has been raped.’ Of course this is not true; for someone to have been raped, their attacker would have to have known or shown reckless disregard as to whether the putative victim had consented. Providing these loose and lazy definitions is more likely to confuse and demonise young people than offer meaningful guidance.

This incessant drive to interfere in teenage relationships is perverse and destructive. It shouldn’t be news to anyone who has been a teenager that the awkward months of fumbling screw-ups that the government wants to rebrand as ‘abusive relationships’ are often extremely messy. They are the process through which young people find out for themselves what constitutes legitimate behaviour and what doesn’t. This inevitably involves both young men and women getting it wrong and acting like bunny-boiling psychopaths. It may even lead to sexual encounters in which both parties are unsure what really happened: who consented when, whether one person overstepped the mark, and whether both parties remained entirely comfortable throughout. This does not, and should not, mean that these encounters should be treated like incidents of rape or sexual violence. There is a significant difference between the perfectly normal ambiguities that permeate teenage relationships and the appalling violations involved in criminal sexual violence.

However, the most telling aspect of the discussion around teenage domestic violence is its blind conflation of teenage and adult relationships. It is telling that the Home Office can justify its policies on the basis that ‘the nature of teenage relationships is often similar to relationships between adults’. This is illustrative of an officialdom which has lost any sense of what distinguishes young people from adults. The same trend has driven down the age of criminal responsibility to 10. And it has allowed the United Kingdom to be one of the only countries in Europe which tries teenagers as if they were adults. It is striking that those organisations which usually campaign against the overt criminalisation of young people, such as Kids Company headed up by the normally vocal Camila Batmanghelidjh, have been eerily silent following last week’s announcement of plans to expand the definition of domestic violence. That is despite the fact that it is likely to lead to many more young people being put before the courts when all they really need is guidance from authoritative adults.

The official expansion of the definition of ‘domestic violence’ to include teenagers is simply another attempt to denigrate the old dividing lines between young and old. We, outside the walls of Westminster and the offices of the NSPCC, should recognise that, in their awkward and bungled nature, teenage relationships are fundamentally different to those involving adults. They are part of an imperfect learning curve towards sexual maturity. Teenagers cannot be ‘domestic abusers’. They can be confused, controlling and even aggressive, but it is vital to acknowledge that they lack the level of judgment attributable to adults. Of course, occasionally the weird world of teen love will require adult intervention, but almost always this should take the form of authoritative adult guidance. The more we delegate the task of leading young people into adulthood to the state, the less young people will be impelled to work their issues out for themselves. And, with that, the worth and purpose of teenage heartache and regret will be lost.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics


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