The French Napoleonic code provided the legal context in 1791 when it established an age of consent of 11 years.The age of consent, which applied to boys as well as girls, was increased to 13 years in 1863.An age of consent statute first appeared in secular law in 1275 in England as part of the rape law.The statute, Westminster 1, made it a misdemeanor to "ravish" a "maiden within age," whether with or without her consent.Moreover, they argued, by late adolescence girls possessed sufficient understanding about how to use the law to blackmail unwary men.Historians have argued that increasing the age of consent also gave the law a more pronounced regulatory dimension.By 1920, Anglo-American legislators had responded by increasing the age of consent to 16 years, and even as high as 18 years.
Opponents remained focused on physiological maturity, however, and argued that girls in their teens were sufficiently developed not to need legal protection.
Narrowly concerned with sexual violence, and with girls, originally, since the 19th century the age of consent has occupied a central place in debates over the nature of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and been drawn into campaigns against prostitution and child marriage, struggles to achieve gender and sexual equality, and the response to teenage pregnancy.
This module traces the shifting ways that the law has been defined, debated and deployed worldwide and from the Middle Ages to the present.
Jurist Sir Matthew Hale argued that the age of consent applied to 10- and 11-year-old girls, but most of England's North American colonies adopted the younger age.
A small group of Italian and German states that introduced an age of consent in the 16th century also employed 12 years.