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The age of consent is a legally defined age that limits the actions and behaviors an individual may engage in if younger than the specified age. Age of consent laws are typically understood as specifying the age at which a person is capable of legally agreeing (consenting) to sexual activity. Age of consent laws have long histories. Their enactment and modification over time reflect the ongoing debates over how we define and understand the life stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, particularly for females. These laws restrict adults from engaging in sexual activity with minors.
In the United States, federal law does not define who a child or minor is in legal terms. The age a person is considered a minor or child is determined by each state. The only exceptions to this are some federal laws. In general, young people gain expanded legal rights at different ages. There are many examples of age restrictions placed on activities and behaviors across the United States. Some examples are purchasing alcoholic beverages, driving automobiles, voting, and marriage. As with the age of consent, the age limits set for these activities vary across jurisdictions, and their determination is somewhat arbitrary. For example, in the United States, the age a person may marry without parental consent varies between 15 and 19 years. The differences between these set ages are typically a result of social reform efforts and have little to do with any real differences between, for example, a 15 and a 16-year-old.
Age of consent laws specifically target the sexual activity of those individuals defined by law as minors. The consequence of this regulation of sexual activity is that any adult who engages in prohibited acts with a minor, regardless of circumstance, is deemed to be in violation of the law. This violation is typically referred to as statutory rape, although few U.S. states currently use this terminology. Instead, many state laws utilize terms such as sexual assault and sexual abuse when classifying these prohibited activities. As with other age-restricted activities, the age of consent for sexual intercourse ranges in the United States from 14 to 18 years. Penalties for violations of these laws also vary across jurisdictions and depend in some instances on the relative ages of the victims and offenders.
While currently there exist a number of laws and regulations stipulating the age at which an individual may engage in certain activities and behaviors, historically these were quite limited in frequency. The exceptions to this historical trend are age of consent laws that have existed for centuries. Early in their history, age of consent laws were largely aimed at regulating the sexual behaviors and sexual exploitation of young girls. These laws can be understood as aiming to protect young females from violence and sexual predators. In most Western nations, the initial age of consent was set somewhere between 10 and 13 years, and these remained the age limits in most Western jurisdictions until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These laws made it illegal for anyone to engage in sexual activity with females under the age of 10 years. The enactment of these laws permitted prosecution of offenders found to violate the law and restricted females from consenting to sexual intercourse. The only exception to the enforcement of such laws was sexual activity between husband and wife.
Beginning in the late 19th century, ideas about childhood began to change, and with these changes came modern notions of adolescence. It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that age of consent laws recognized adolescence as a period of continued growth and, particularly for female youth, vulnerability. The child-saving movements in the United States and Europe were instrumental in influencing currently held views of childhood and adolescence. For example, during this period, reformers were concerned with prostitution and the exploitation of young females in the prostitution trade. Thus, by the early 20th century, many jurisdictions had set the age of consent at 16 years, thereby recognizing adolescence as a period of growth and vulnerability.
Age of consent laws were initially developed to address the victimization of children. Yet the victims did not always fit into the traditional view of what a child should look like, particularly when they had entered the teenage years. Often courts had difficulty securing convictions in statutory rape cases as juries were often influenced by extralegal factors that affected their judgment on the morality of the female victims if they did not look like young children. It has been suggested that the efforts of reformers to increase the age of consent to 16 years, and older in some jurisdictions, was not so much an effort to protect young girls from victimization as an attempt to more broadly control the sexuality of working-class females in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Despite this suggestion, it has also been acknowledged that the efforts of these reformers, or child savers, resulted in extending to older female youth the legal framework that protected female children from sexual violence.
The legal frameworks developed and put in place to address the age of consent did not include the same protections for boys. It has been suggested by some that these laws limited the agency of adolescent females by focusing solely on women, while offering no protection for young boys victimized by adult men. This has led some to argue that these laws were in many ways simply a means of controlling the sexuality of females. Beginning in the 1960s, arguments were made that age of consent laws should also apply to male children and adolescents. While the reformers were somewhat successful in achieving gender-neutral language in the law, females have continued to be the primary focus of age of consent legislation.
More recently, arguments supporting age of consent legislation have typically focused on reducing pregnancy rates among adolescent girls. Advocates who support existing age of consent legislation have most recently suggested that by controlling the sexual behavior of young females, the law might successfully reduce pregnancy rates and thereby reduce the social and economic consequences of youth pregnancy. It is again worth mentioning the complexity of comparing age of consent laws across jurisdictions, as there are typically a range of state laws enacted with varying age categories, for both the victim and the offender, that target a range of sexual behaviors. Two major U.S. federal laws that have provided more consistency are the Protect Act (2003) and the Adam Walsh Act (2006), which set the age of consent at 18 years of age. Federal laws regulate age of consent in cases that involve crossing of state borders for sex, sex tourism, or out-of-country travel for sex as well as pornography. Federal jurisdiction in these matters may result in the prosecution of individuals found to violate the law even if the acts occur in a jurisdiction that permits the act.
Age of consent laws have had a long history, and many of these laws have become quite complex over time. Many social and economic factors have influenced the changes to age of consent laws over time. The determination of a particular age in the law has and continues to be a relatively arbitrary decision as few females and males mature at the same rate. Throughout history, the age of consent has ranged between 10 and 18 years. Beyond age differences, these laws have also been inconsistent in their application to females and males, as well as to heterosexual and homosexual acts.
- Dauda, “Providential Understandings of Childhood and Public Policy: The Politics of Generation, Future Adulthood and Moral Regulation of Sexuality in Liberal Democracies.” Sexuality & Culture, v.17 (2013).
- Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
- Gorham, Deborah. “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon Re-Examined: Child Prostitution and the Idea of Childhood in Late Victorian ” Victorian Studies, v.21 (1978).
- Minzee, Kim and Elizabeth Heger Boyle. “When Do Laws Matter? National Minimum-Age-of-Marriage Laws, Child Rights, and Adolescent Fertility, 1989–2007.” Law & Society Review, 47/3 (2013).
- Robertson, Stephen. “Age of Consent and the Making of Modern Childhood in New York City, 1886–1921.” The Journal of Social History, Summer (2002).