Age Of Consent Essay

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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.

Bibliography:

  1. 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).
  2. Foucault, The History  of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. Robertson, Stephen. “Age of Consent and the Making  of Modern Childhood in New York City, 1886–1921.” The Journal of Social History,  Summer (2002).

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