Puberty and the Age of Consent. When Should “Yes” Be No!

Are we punishing young girls, rather than focusing on the predators?

This article deals with the controversial subject of girls who are underaged, consenting to and willingly [supposedly at their own free will participating in the act of sex. The following words focus only on consensual sex and not the act of rape, which many argue applies to all underage women, irrespective of the act of consent. Consent is far more than agreeing – it’s understanding and trusting. Sometimes, to suggest consent was present, is to condone psychological manipulation.

This is an emotive topic for many, and it is necessary to add context early into the piece before we examine the history of the age of consent and discuss its current impact on today’s societies and politics.

Gary Glitter has just been released from prison after serving just half of a 16-year prison term for engaging in non-consensual acts of sex with two underage girls, aged 12 and 13. Had he lived over 100 years ago, there would have been no legal basis for prosecuting him for engaging in sex with these children, consensual or otherwise.

In the author’s opinion, individuals like Glitter are the fundamental drivers of the development of age of consent and rape laws. To be clear, if you are older than 25 and express an interest in girls under the age of 16, you should consider seeking professional counsel. If you’re over 40, then you certainly have nothing in common with a girl this young and no frame of reference for forming a relationship with her. Your motives are purely sexual or ego, often coupled with a desire to dominate and shape the object of your attention into a warped version of your hidden desires. To suggest consent is to condone psychological manipulation.

In America states such as Tennessee and Wyoming are waging political battles to preserve the right to marry at younger ages. The Wyoming Republican Party contests legislation proposing raising the state’s legal marriage age to 16, arguing that arbitrary limits on child marriage interfere with parental rights and religious liberty. What then of the psychological health of a parent who condones marriage at 14?

This suggested law—which passed the Republican-controlled Wyoming House of Representatives on a 36-25 vote late last month—proposes banning state residents from marrying anyone under the age of 16, while requiring anyone under the age of 18 seeking to get married to receive written consent from their parents under the eye of a competent witness.

Last year, a 32-year-old man married a 16-year-old girl in Wyoming, Guy Beaudoin, the deputy state registrar of vital statistics, said during a hearing on the bill. There have also been several instances of 14-year-olds being married in that state.

Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are the only states where 18 is the legal age to get married. For other states, the legal age varies. The legal age is 17 in 10 states, while 21 others set the standard at 16. In Maryland, Hawaii and Kansas, it’s 15.

None of this is healthy or normal and more importantly, there is little that can be done to redeem or reprogram these individuals or even state legislatures that permit these practices. They will revert to type given the opportunity and we know from experience they are not deterred by age of consent laws. It is the author’s opinion that severe penalties are required to act as a deterrent. In short, our laws to punish individuals like Gary Glitter are woefully inadequate and society frequently fails the victims. The education of state and Federal representatives may need to be considered too.

Today, most countries set the age of consent at anywhere from 13 to 18 years of age, the logic being that the woman is emotionally mature enough to understand the full ramifications of her choices and that she has also, in most countries, attained the age of contractual adulthood. What motivated society to step in to protect young women? How we have arrived at this point may surprise you.

A History of Consent – Married and Pregnant at 12

The first age of consent statute appeared in secular law in 1275 in England as part of the rape law. The statute called Westminster 1 made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” with or without her consent. The term “within age” was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.

In 1576, a law was issued making it a felony to “unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any woman child under the age of 10 years”. The law was generally interpreted as creating more severe punishments when girls were under 10 and imposing less severe punishment for acts with 10 and 11 year-old girls. Most of England’s North American colonies adopted the younger age. In the 16th century, a group of Italian and German states introduced an age of consent set at 12 years.

The laws made it easier to prosecute a man who engaged in sex with younger girls, with or without their consent. The law also made it impossible for an underage female to consent to sexual activity. There was however one exception: married women were not subject to the law.

The Age of Enlightenment

At the end of the 18th century, other European nations began to enact age of consent laws, prompted by the emergence of an Enlightenment concept of childhood focused on development and growth. Children were seen as more distinct in nature from adults than previously imagined, and were considered vulnerable to harm in the years around puberty. The French Napoleonic code provided legal context in 1791 when it established an age of consent of 11 years. This age of consent, which applied to boys as well as girls, was increased to 13 years in 1863.

Following France’s example, many other countries increased the age of consent to 13 in the 19th century. The likes of Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons, that mirrored the Napoleonic code, initially set the age of consent at 10-12 years and then raised it to between 13 and 16 years in the second half of the 19th century. In 1875, England raised their age of consent to 13 years; an act of sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 13 was now considered a crime. In the U.S. each state determined its own criminal law and the age of consent ranged from 10 to 12 years of age.

U.S. laws did not change in the wake of England’s shift and Anglo-American law did not apply to boys.

Why the different ages? Well, although scientists and physicians had established that menstruation and puberty occurred on average around age 14, in Europe at that period in history, different individuals experienced puberty at different ages. The law struggled to find a happy medium or decide on an arbitrary age to incorporate into law.

Child prostitution enters the picture

At the end of 19th century child prostitution was brought into the debate by moral reformers. Revelations at the time of child prostitution were central to their platform. Child prostitution, reformers argued, resulted in men taking advantage of the innocence of girls just older than the age of consent. “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” a series published by W. T. Stead, in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 which was the most sensational and influential of the exposés circulating at the time.

Outrage followed on the heels of the articles, pushing British legislators to raise the age of consent to 16 years. The effects spilt over into the US and encouraged reformers in the U.S, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the British Empire, and Europe to push for similar legislation. By 1920, Anglo-American legislators had responded by increasing the age of consent to 16 years, and in some instances, it was set at 18 years.

Despite these ages being far above the normal age of menstruation which had been seen as a sign of adulthood, proponents justified them on scientific grounds suggesting psychological maturity came later than physiological maturity. They also argued that the age of consent should be aligned with other benchmarks of development, such as the age at which girls could enter into contracts and hold property rights, typically 21 years. Opponents remained focused on physiological maturity, however, and argued that girls in their teens were sufficiently developed not to need legal protection.

Moreover, they argued, by late adolescence girls possessed sufficient understanding about how to use the law to blackmail unwary men.

Historians argue that increasing the age of consent also gave the law a more pronounced regulatory dimension. In practice, these laws were often used to control the behavior of working-class girls. Reformers at the time, however, saw no distinction between protection and regulation. By making it a crime for girls to decide to have sexual intercourse outside marriage, the law protected them from themselves and from the immature understanding that led them to behaviors reformers considered immoral.

By the 1930s, support for setting the age of consent at 16 years or older had begun to weaken. Growing economic, social, and cultural independence for women saw girls in their teens assuming a role in western societies quite distinct from that of younger children. New concepts of adolescence and specifically of girlhood normalized sexual activity during the teenage years, at least within peer groups, as “sex play” necessary to achieve adult heterosexuality.

Emboldened and influenced by such ideas, girls more often talked of being “in love” with the men charged with having sex with them, and expressed sexual desire. Prosecutors and juries increasingly refused to treat such cases as rape. Legislators, however, did not change the legal age of consent.

In the 1930’s, the American term “jailbait,” showed cultural recognition of teenage girls as sexually attractive, even sexually active, but legally unavailable. American legislators did amend laws to take account of the offender’s age during the 1940s and 1950s as teen culture expanded and female adolescents exercised their sexual autonomy. During and after World War II, if both the male and female were underage (or between two and six years above the age of consent), the punishment was reduced.

Modern Day America

By the 1970s, feminist rape law reform campaigns had helped to expand age of consent laws. Aiming to challenge stereotypes of female passivity and growing concern about male victimization, they made it clearer that the laws concerned all youth—male and female—and that the laws protected them from exploitation rather than ensuring their virginity. European nations in general did not follow suit. Only Britain, in 2003, revised its legislation, making an act committed by an individual under 18 with one under 16 a separate, lesser offense.

Feminist rape law reform also saw the early application of gender-neutral language: instead of referring to “females” the law referred to any “person.” The nature of the act addressed, however, remained the same and age of consent laws applied only to heterosexual intercourse. The new language criminalized acts between underage boys and women, but not those between boys and men. Promoted as a means of formalizing equality between men and women, gender-neutral language won support as a means of protecting boys.

The treatment of such cases, however, was not gender neutral and drew upon gender stereotypes. In practice, boys were imagined as sexual agents, not victims, and as sexual agents, the prevailing assumption was that they would not be harmed by sexual acts with adult women.

In the U.S., the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to apply the age of consent only to girls, justifying it with a new, “modern” basis for the law, the consequences of pregnancy for females. Despite this ruling, gender-neutral laws were still enacted around the country.

In the 1990s a new link was established between the law and teenage pregnancies. Conservatives seeking to control adolescent sexuality joined with welfare reform activists, promoting claims that the enforcement of the age of consent could prevent teenage motherhood (and rising welfare costs) that resulted from girls’ exploitation by adult men.

At the end of the 20th century, outside the U.S., age of consent laws were expanded to include same-sex couples, as a result of growing acknowledgment of gender rights and desire to reach those at risk of AIDS.

Puberty and its impact on health

Before looking at the social impacts of the current age of consent laws, it is perhaps fitting to address the issue of puberty and its impact on female and public health.

Over the past three decades, studies from Europe and the United States have shown a tendency towards earlier puberty onset in girls, with a greater change in the age of breast development compared to the first menstruation. Many point to obesity and exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals as the culprits.

According to an article published in Tidsskriftet that examines research carried out in Sweden and Norway looking at the onset of puberty;

Many complex factors affect the onset of puberty. Genetics are thought to explain 50–75 % of the variation, while the rest is attributed to lifestyle factors such as nutrition, general health, psychosocial stress, perinatal factors, body composition and environmental factors such as endocrine disruptors. The trend towards earlier puberty is often seen in connection with the parallel obesity epidemic among adolescents. Early studies on endocrine disruptors as a cause of earlier puberty onset initially shed light on the period immediately before puberty. More recent studies have demonstrated that exposure to such chemicals in the fetal and neonatal period are also relevant to puberty timing. The effect of various stressors depends on the period of occurrence and exposure. For example, prepubertal malnutrition or overnutrition (increased fat mass) in girls can lead to late or early puberty respectively, while intrauterine growth retardation is associated with early puberty.

In the same way, psychosocial stress preceding or during puberty can lead to delayed menarche, while accelerated puberty has been described in girls who experience such stress in early postnatal life or as an infant.

What impact does the earlier onset of puberty have on the health of women? Early puberty, particularly in girls, has been associated with adverse effects on adult health. At the population level, observations indicate that early menarche is associated with increased mortality as well as a higher risk of breast cancer , cardiovascular disease  and mental illness. In addition, early puberty has been shown to be associated with more frequent and prolonged adolescent-related risky behavior.

Freedom and the Modern Day Woman

More than 800 years after the first recorded age of consent laws, the one constant is the lack of consistency. Laws around the world define the socially appropriate age of consent anywhere from 13 to 18 years of age. Americans, in particular, have difficulty agreeing on what represents an adult female. It appears that society still has an issue regarding maturity when we achieve it and the woman’s right to freely consent to the act of sex outside the bonds of marriage.

Concerning the U.S., in Mississippi, for instance, where with parental consent, males can marry at 17 and females at 15. Boys below 17 and girls below 15 can marry with judicial approval and parental consent, while in Delaware, a minor (under the age of 18) may not marry until achieving the age of 18 (also the age of consent). Religion and societal tradition also play massive roles in determining what we see fit for setting these guidelines.

There can be little argument that most women (I use the term in this instance to refer to females that have reached puberty) enter the world of adulthood and sex far sooner than their counterparts of two or three generations ago. They are exposed at all levels and through every medium to the adult world of sex. Ten years old have the internet placed at their disposal, music videos and films normalize sexual behavior, and platforms like TikTok are inundated with young women and girls, some as young as 8, dressed provocatively and dancing suggestively. We condone this behavior, and yet we frown on the byproduct.

Some girls are sexually active by the time they reach their 13th birthday, some even sooner, driven, some would argue, by nature, while others would suggest it is the fault of the promiscuous societies they are raised in. The earlier onset of puberty may also impact early sexual activity. However, no research currently exists to support this.

As to current law affecting the age of consent, it has drawbacks. Feelings of guilt and fear affect mental health, while the threat of legal consequence can and does prevent girls from seeking advice, medical help, contraception and counselling. It can endanger their health and, in dangerous and deadly instances, the consequences of backstreet abortions gone wrong. Criminalizing – regardless of legal response – underage acts can have dire consequences for the young women who step over this legal line in the sand.

Can a 14 or 15-year-old girl be considered emotionally mature enough to consent to sex? Does current law infringe on their rights as young adults to make this choice? Is the age of consent law archaic, and should we not, instead, be focused on tightening rape laws that punish predatory individuals like Gary Glitter who choose to exploit young, underage people?

Scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. have discovered that girls tend to optimize brain connections earlier than boys. The researchers conclude that this may explain why females generally mature faster in certain cognitive and emotional areas than males during childhood and adolescence, pointing to another factor that favors the right of choice for young females. Do not use that type of research to justify exploitation.

Our societies are riddled with mixed messages, encouraging the overt popularization and normalization of sex to underage children while criminalizing their pursuit of it. Perhaps a more sane approach would rely on investing heavily in school-based sex education and supportive parenting information rather than criminalization. Parents should be taught that a policy to guide, not hide, produces thoughtful, communicative, and well-grounded children who can function safely in an adult environment.

Age of consent laws will not prevent teenage pregnancies and most certainly do not prevent teenagers from engaging in sex. Instead, they teach children to hide their interests and actions from people who can guide them. All they are left with in the absence of our help are glamorous, material versions of sex in a “material world.”

The constant bombardment of suggestive clothing ads, provocative music lyrics, and the sexually illustrative and overt normalization through the medium of video of the sexual act between a man and woman impacts young minds. The lines between sex and love have blurred, and children are challenged to distinguish one from the other. Society, and parents owe it to the younger generation to highlight the emotional and physical dangers of engaging in an intimate act we can never walk back.


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Robert Turner, Founding Editor
Robert Turner, Founding Editor
Robert is a Founder of Medika Life. He is a published author and owner of MedKoin Healthcare Solutions. He lives between the Philippines and the UK. and is an outspoken advocate for human rights. Access to basic healthcare and eradicating racial and gender bias in medicine are key motivators behind the Medika website and reflect Robert's passion for accessible medical care globally.
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