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The age of consent is the age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts and is thus the minimum age of a person with whom another person is legally permitted to engage in sexual activity. The term age of consent rarely appears in legal statutes. Generally, a law will instead establish the age below which it is illegal to engage in sexual activity with that person. Age of consent laws vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, though most jurisdictions set the age of consent in the range 14 to 18.
There are many “grey areas” in this area of law, some regarding unspecific and untried legislation, others brought about by debates regarding changing societal attitudes, and others due to conflicts between federal and state laws. These factors all make age of consent an often confusing subject, and a topic of highly charged debates. Age of consent for heterosexual sex in various countries. In traditional societies, the age of consent for a sexual union was a matter for the family to decide, or a tribal custom. In most cases, this coincided with signs of puberty, menstruation for a woman, and pubic hair for a man. Reliable data for ages at marriage is scarce. In England, for example, the only reliable data in the early modern period comes from property records made after death.
Not only were the records relatively rare, but not all bothered to record the participants’ ages, and it seems that the more complete the records are, the more likely they are to reveal young marriages. In the 12th century, Gratian, the influential founder of canon law in medieval Europe, accepted age of puberty for marriage to be around twelve for girls and around fourteen for boys but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if both children were older than seven years of age. Statute of Westminster 1275 made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” whether with or without her consent. The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. In the 16th century, a small number of Italian and German states set the minimum age for sexual intercourse for girls, setting it at twelve years. Towards the end of the 18th century, other European countries also began to enact similar laws. The first French Constitution of 1791 established the minimum age at eleven years.
Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons initially set the minimum age at ten to twelve years. Age of consent laws were, historically, difficult to follow and enforce: legal norms based on age were not, in general, common until the 19th century, because clear proof of exact age and precise date of birth were often unavailable. In Christian societies, sex outside marriage was forbidden. Older children were themselves often punished for being complicit in sexual interaction with an adult. A general shift in social and legal attitudes toward issues of sex occurred during the modern era. Attitudes on the appropriate age of permission for females to engage in sexual activity drifted toward adulthood. Several articles written by investigative journalist William Thomas Stead in the late 19th century on the issue of child prostitution in London led to public outrage and ultimately to the raising of the age of consent to sixteen.
English common law had traditionally set the age of consent within the range of ten to twelve years old, but the Offences Against the Person Act 1875 raised this to thirteen in Great Britain and Ireland. The investigative journalist William Thomas Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette was pivotal in exposing the problem of child prostitution in the London underworld through a publicity stunt. Inspired by the “Maiden Tribute” articles, female reformers in the U. In France, Portugal, Denmark, the Swiss cantons and other countries, the minimum age was raised to between thirteen and sixteen years in the following decades. In France, under the Napoleonic Code, the age of consent was set in 1832 at eleven, and was raised to thirteen in 1863. It was increased to fifteen in 1945.