Age of Consent: Definition, History & Laws

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  • 0:03 Definition of Age of Consent
  • 0:54 History of Age of Consent
  • 2:28 Laws of Age of Consent
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jesse Davis

Jesse has worked in law enforcement for over 10 years in various capacities including patrol and investigations. For five years, his duties included instruction to area schools. He has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology.

The age of consent is when a person is considered legally able to agree to engage in sexual intercourse. This lesson is a brief overview of the definition, history, and laws pertaining to the age of consent.

Definition of Age of Consent

While the common thought in the United States is that being 18 years of age legally makes you an adult, nationwide there are different rules and statutes that apply to when a person can consent to certain acts. Because the laws can vary depending on the state or jurisdiction, this can create some confusion at the very least or have legal consequences if statues pertaining to age are violated. In this lesson, we will look at the history and some of the legal aspects regarding the age of consent.

The age of consent is defined as the threshold for when a person can legally enter into marriage without parental consent and the age that a person can legally agree to engage in sexual intercourse. This threshold applies to any person but can vary depending on the state and age of persons involved.

History of Age of Consent

Age of consent laws have been in place for hundreds of years. Let's discuss a general overview of the history of age of consent laws.

Early Years

The age of consent first appeared in England in 1275 regarding 'maidens of age,' which was about 12 years old. Later, in 1576, the law changed and it became a felony to abuse any woman under the age of 10, although less severe penalties occurred if the victim was 10 or 11 years of age.

In 1930s, America support for the age of 16 began to weaken as girls in their teens gained new levels of social and cultural independence. The 1930s also saw a shift away from successful prosecutions for rape due to the victims describing being 'in love' with their partners. The 1940s-1950s again saw another shift, this time reducing punishments for offenders that were near the same age level as the victim, usually 2-6 years away from the age of consent.

Modern Era

As a result of the increasing influence of feminism in the 1970s, rape law reform further broadened age of consent laws and included males as victims. In the 1990s, welfare reform activists promoted claims that enforcement of age of consent laws could prevent unwanted or teenage pregnancy and decrease expanding welfare costs. Current day trends reflect changes pertaining to consent for instances in which same-sex contact is involved.

Laws of Age of Consent

Laws differ from state to state regarding the age of consent. To further complicate matters, restrictions based on an age difference of a few years can mean the difference between being charged with no crime, a misdemeanor, or a felony. Let's look at Utah, for example. In Utah, a person is considered a child until they reach the age of 14, then they are considered a minor once they are older than 14 years of age but younger than 16. Although they can't consent to sexual intercourse, the law does change if the defendant in a criminal proceeding has less than a 4-year age gap, so the offense becomes a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Other laws apply to 16- and 17-year-old persons, allowing for up to a 7-year age difference.

California has similar statutes in that no one can consent if they are under the age of 18 unless they are married to the other party. New York's listed age of consent is 17. In Texas, the age of consent is 17 with a minimum age of 14, meaning that a person can legally consent to sexual intercourse if the age difference is not more than 3 years.

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