Teaching Module

Age of Consent Laws


The primary sources in this module have been chosen to highlight the shifting ways that age of consent laws have been defined, debated and deployed in Western nations over time. To make sense of these documents, it is important to recognize the historically contingent nature of childhood and girlhood: the answer to who is a child or girl differs depending upon the historical period. Bodies are perceived differently and are different to the extent that the average age of puberty has fallen; psychological development and understanding are not always important in definitions of childhood.

It is also important to recognize two tensions within age of consent laws. First, the arbitrary nature of the legal category of age was at odds with fluidity of growth: while the law treated all underage girls as equally mature (or immature), in practice judges and juries confronted the fact that they were not. Second, the age of consent had a dual nature, both protective, in the sense that it removed the need for a girl to show resistance to charge rape, and regulatory, in that it precluded an underage girl from consenting. Broader questions about the law also underpin the issue of the age of consent. Can the law change people's ideas? Can the law stop individuals from having sex? What role do unenforced laws play in shaping cultural attitudes and social behavior?

These sources track the shifting meanings of the age of consent. The Arrowsmith trial demonstrates its role in rape law and the gap between the statute and legal practice. The "Maiden Tribute" articles connect rape and prostitution, making clear how the age of consent became part of anti-prostitution campaigns. The WCTU petition also refers to sexual assault, but incorporates circumstances in which girls consent to their own ruin, highlighting the new regulatory arguments for the law that came to dominate campaigns to increase the age.

Yajnik's speech links the age of consent and marriage and shows the different forms regulatory arguments could take in colonial contexts. Texas legislators' grounds for opposing an increased age highlight the divergent understandings of childhood that existed even when the age of consent was being raised. Morris Ploscowe's later commentary on the law in many ways echoes those arguments, but does so within a new framework, the modern concept of adolescence, that provides them with expert backing. The notion of jailbait invoked by Andre Williams' song speaks to a recognition in popular culture of the same tensions between the sexualization of adolescents and existence of the law that Ploscowe identifies.

Against the backdrop of these tensions, the U.S. Supreme Court decision again shifts the grounds for the age of consent, this time to the consequences of sex for girls;specifically pregnancy. The Virginia billboard builds on that argument, linking the age of consent to public health and positioning the law as a means of changing behavior. The table of ages used in western laws highlights the historical and contemporary variations in age of consent laws, and the comparatively higher ages employed in the Anglo-American laws relative to Europe. Finally, the decision in the Sutherland case highlights a further shift in the meaning of the age of consent, to encompass in not only boys, but also same-sex acts.

Discussion Questions

  • What justifications for the age of consent do different sources offer? What arguments against the age of consent, or for a lower age of consent, do different sources offer? What do those arguments suggest about why the age of consent has increased since the 19th century? What do those arguments suggest about why there is so much variation in the age used in the laws of different nations? What is the relationship between age of consent laws and changing notions of girlhood and adolescence?
  • What issues have been connected to age of consent laws in these documents? What was the basis of those connections?
  • Does the age of consent primarily protect or regulate children, especially girls', sexuality? Is the answer different at different historical moments or in different cultures?
  • Why did the age of consent not apply to boys in Anglo-American cultures until the 1970s? Why did it not apply to same-sex acts in those cultures until the 1960s, and not at an equal age until 2000? Is the age of consent still gendered? Does it still apply primarily to girls?

How to Cite This Source

Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/230 (accessed August 10, 2021).