The Russell Brand allegations show we need to talk about the age of consent in the UK

russell brand and tweets surrounding him
Should the UK's age of consent be raised to 18?Artwork: Jaime Lee - Hearst Owned

When Alice* was 16, she dated a man nearly twice her age, who she met by chance in the street. It was 2006, and that man was Russell Brand: a rising star on the comedy circuit and aged 30.

Nearly 17 years after she met Brand, Alice herself has passed the age the controversial comedian was when she met him. Looking back on her experience with an older, wiser head on her shoulders, she now says she was groomed by Brand, who she alleges then went on to sexually assault her.

Alice’s harrowing story is one of five women’s testimonies which were published and broadcast over the weekend by the Times, the Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches. The women accused Brand of rape, sexual assault, emotionally controlling and manipulative behaviour between 2006 and 2013. Brand has strenuously denied allegations of wrongdoing, countering that all his relationships have been consensual in a YouTube video.

The accounts of these women have brought a number of important discussions back into the spotlight, from the terrifyingly low rape conviction rates to how often those in positions of power are able to get away with crimes for so long, often in plain sight. But it’s Alice’s story that has reignited the flames around the ongoing debate surrounding age gaps in relationships – seeing many ponder why people significantly older are so keen to date people half their age, and in some cases, still at school.

The debate is a thorny one. Some people, glossing over Alice’s alleged sexual assault, have no qualms about Brand’s alleged relationship with a 16-year-old, dismissing it as ‘fine’ because she was of legal age. But others argue that we use the law to normalise predatory and unhealthy relationships. Some claim older parties utilise their age, and the naivety of their younger partner, to their advantage. Does there need to be a change in legislation to emphasise what is acceptable - and what is predatory?

russell brand speaks on a microphone
Jeff Spicer - Getty Images

This continued discussion around Brand and his alleged crimes has fostered a triggering and difficult atmosphere on social media. The graphic nature of the testimonies has retraumatised some survivors, who are now looking back and reassessing their relationships with older men who, like Alice, they say took advantage of their naivety.

Amanda*, who is speaking to Cosmopolitan UK under a pseudonym, has found the last few days particularly difficult. She had a relationship with a man 12 years older than her, and says he started grooming her when she was just 14.

“He was aware of my age,” Amanda, now 28, recalls. “I would tell him about school and friends, and he would give me advice. He would send me links to outfits that would suit me. He once wrote me a poem saying he ‘couldn’t wait to see me blossom into a woman.’

“Our conversations weren’t explicitly sexual at that point. He’d say I was mature for my age, and that my parents didn’t understand me and my peers didn't either. Looking back now, it was textbook grooming behaviour.”

At the time, Amanda - and her school friends - found it exciting that an older man could be interested in her. Her parents were horrified and tried to halt the relationship - but when Amanda turned 16, they accepted they could no longer stop her.

However, while Amanda was the legal age of consent, she was inexperienced and manipulated into having sex without using protection, which resulted in a pregnancy, and subsequently, a “traumatic” miscarriage.

“There were so many things we did, I didn't really have the experience of and didn't want to do,” Amanda recalls. “But I was so young, I just wanted to impress him.”

Amanda’s partner became increasingly controlling and psychologically abusive. The relationship ended when Amanda was 18, after she questioned whether he was seeing other women. Initially, she dismissed the experience as just having had “one bad boyfriend” - until she turned 26 herself, and realised she just “couldn’t fathom speaking to an underage person”.

“Alice’s experience sounds really similar to mine. People who are over the age of 18 who are looking to have a sexual relationship with those who are 16 should face legal consequences,” she says.

As for Alice, she’s now calling for change. She thinks a ‘staggered’ age of consent should be introduced in the UK. “When looking at 16-year-olds, I can’t even imagine finding them sexually attractive,” Alice recently said on BBC’s Women’s Hour. “As I became older, I started to feel angry. It’s very difficult to say it’s appropriate in any way for a 16 year old to be with a 30 year old. When people said my mother should ‘call the police’, then what? I was legally allowed to be there.”

The age of consent in the UK was set at 16 in 1885, and was further enshrined by law in the 2003 Sexual Offences Act. However, UK law also defines a ‘child’ as anyone under 18, leading to an uncomfortable loophole in legal terms. An example is in the Sexual Offences Act 2019, where it is illegal to distribute any indecent or sexual images of anyone under the age of 18, regardless of whether the person in the photos is over 16 and consented to having the images taken.

“The age of 16 is when the government and society believe you have the capacity to make informed decisions about sexual activity,” explains Sophie Campbell-Adams, a lawyer and director at Britton & Time in Mayfair and Brighton.

“But the difference between those two ages is that someone who is over 16, but under 18, may not fully understand the consequences or dangers of their actions filming themselves explicitly.

“The reason there are these two age brackets is to safeguard these individuals from coercion, exploitation and manipulation.”

rear view of a teenage girl looking out of the window whilst sitting on her bed
Justin Paget - Getty Images

If the law had been different, it could have helped Amanda when, in 2021, over 12 years after she started speaking to her former partner, she contacted the police. After a year-long investigation, authorities dropped the case, claiming that her former partner’s actions had been “morally questionable” but because no sexual activity happened before she turned 16, “entirely legal.” The coercive and controlling behaviour he displayed was not investigated, with this only becoming an offence in 2015 - after Amanda’s relationship had long ended.

“The officers in charge seemed to have an attitude about why I reported it,” Amanda recalls. “They emphasised this whole narrative of ‘well, you were 16.’ It felt like they were justifying his behaviour.

“Calling it a relationship implies we were equal. I was a child. I had my life governed by this older man.”

It’s this strange grey area which can lead to discussions around age-gap relationships being so problematic. A 16-year-old is, in legal terms, a child, but often in predatory relationships, they are encouraged to see themselves as ‘different’ or ‘more mature’ than their peers.

“If someone is 16, they’re pretty much still a child,” Lisa Durston, the communications manager of rape and sexual abuse charity SARSAS, explains. “Compared to someone in their twenties or thirties, a 16-year-old doesn’t have that life experience – they haven’t learned to navigate the world of what a healthy relationship looks like.”

“It’s really important to take into account the massive power imbalance between someone so much older who can control, groom and manipulate the younger person in that relationship. That can happen whether the older person is a celebrity or not.

“The age of 16 is really vulnerable for your first relationship and sexual experience with a much older person, who can use their own knowledge and experience into manipulating you.”

The discrepancies between the legal status of a 16-year-old, and the maturity of a 16 year old, has seen some commentators call for the age of consent to be raised to 18. Meanwhile, others, like Alice, want a sliding scale of consent where those aged between 16 and 18 can legally have sex with each other but anyone over 18 having sex with someone younger would be breaking the law.

But would a law change make a difference? As we are seeing that, despite ongoing efforts to raise prosecution for rape, it’s still very difficult to bring crimes of a sexual nature to court.

In stats released last year, more than 99% of rapes reported to police in England and Wales do not result in a conviction, with delays in reporting, the lack of physical evidence and the reluctance some survivors have in coming forward, contributing to shockingly poor statistics. It’s a similarly grim state of affairs across the rest of the UK; in Scotland, only 51% of rape and attempted rape trials lead to conviction, compared to a 91% overall conviction rate generally for all other crimes reported. In Northern Ireland, only 1 in 10 rape cases make it to court.

“If the evidence isn’t there, then prosecutors are less inclined to pursue this person,” Campbell-Adams explains. “If the law were to change and the age of consent were to increase, it’s about considering how this is policed. How would we be able to stop underage people having sex?”

It’s often not until victims of predatory age-gap relationships are older that they’re able to recognise what happened to them was wrong. Should a contemporaneous (of the time) charge be brought, a younger person would be unlikely and unwilling to testify against their partner, who they may think they’re in love with: “It’s just so unlikely it’ll work in the real world,” Campbell-Adams muses.

Another concern for Campbell-Adams is that in our current society victims just don’t feel able to speak out, let alone go to the authorities. “If it was to happen, it would have to be a slow and gradual change, where an environment is created so people feel supported,” she says. “There’s been a lot of questioning in the media about what’s appropriate, and why women like Alice are only just coming forward now,” adds Durston. “It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual assault, the rise in victim blaming and ultimately, a failing justice system.”

young woman puts on lipstick
C. Romance - Getty Images

Instead of changing the law, both Durston and Campbell-Adams argue greater relationship and sex education (RSE) is necessary at schools. Currently, sex and relationship education is only taught up to Key Stage Four in schools – finishing in Year 11, where students are 16. Increasing the sex education age in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be in line with schools in Scotland, who are taught RSE up until 18.

The campaign group Make It Mandatory has since called for sex and relationship education in schools to be extended to 19 year olds, having worked closely with Refuge to petition the government for this change.

“We need to make sure 16 to 19-year-olds are covered in education,” Make it Mandatory founder and domestic abuse survivor, Faustine Petron, told Cosmopolitan UK last week. “We strongly believe if the government raises the age of RSE and covers 16 to 19 year olds, it could act as a preventative measure to make sure young people are informed about coercive control, healthy relationships, sex education, and come out of sixth form as healthy, well-rounded young people.”

Having a solid foundation of education will help teens not only recognise red flags of abuse in predatory relationships, but could also demonstrate to future perpetrators what healthy relationships should look like, away from external factors that may have warped their perception.

“In an exploitative relationship, it is common for a younger person to believe that they are in an equal and healthy relationship with someone much older,” Durston explains.

However, for Durston, the conversations taking place on social media suggests it’s not just younger generations that would benefit from more education about sex and appropriate relationships.

After all, abusive relationships can also happen within people of the same age, and there are some instances of healthy partnerships with an age gap. While it is vital we can all recognise the signs of problematic behaviour, abuse is never the victim’s fault - even if they were educated about red flags.

“It’s never the responsibility of a child or young person to keep themselves safe from predatory behaviour,” stresses Durston. “It is 100% the responsibility of older people not to abuse their position of power to exploit and groom a 16-year-old, regardless of the legality of the situation.

“We should also never tell someone how they should feel over something that happened to them, or how to frame their own experiences. It should always be a survivor-led approach as it can take many years for someone to recognise what happened to them was abuse.”

It can be disheartening to see the debate on social media following the allegations surrounding Brand. Numerous high profile figures, including self-styled misogynist Andrew Tate, and X (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk, rushed out to defend Brand when he posted his YouTube denial before the allegations were broadcast.

However, Durston points out that “small, small steps” have been made over the past two decades, indicating the hugely different culture of the late nineties and early aughts, when the accusations against Brand took place and when overtly sexualised depictions of young girls was commonplace. “We definitely saw a fetishization of youth, virginity and schoolgirls,” she explains. “The era almost enabled these sorts of relationships to flourish as it was just normalised. It wasn’t questioned in the same way it would be questioned now.”

Durston adds the fact we are having these conversations, and that these allegations are being taken seriously, shows how society is moving in the right direction. The initial investigation has led to another woman coming forward to the Metropolitan Police about an assault by Brand alleged to have occurred in 2003. Elsewhere, the BBC have removed all of Brand’s content from its channels, while YouTube has suspended Brand making any money from any content posted on the platform. His tour has also been suspended.

“Change has been slow,” she says, “But we’ve seen such huge solidarity within the comedy industry and survivors, whose stories will give others the courage to speak out knowing others will listen and believe them. That’s hugely powerful.”

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