Age of Consent in European & American History

What was the ‘Age of Consent’ in European and American history, prior to the 20th century? In this article, I shall bring forth evidences which demonstrate that the ‘Age of consent’ was indeed, very young, even by today’s standards.

I will provide academic sources which show that girls were allowed to be married at the age of 10 years old and sometimes times, as young as 7 years old, legally. It was norm just over 100 years ago to see girls being married off at very young ages. In most cultures, the marriage would have been consummated at the onset of puberty.

1. Professor of history Margaret Wade Labarge

“It needs to be remembered that many Medieval widows were not old, Important heiresses were often married between the ages of 5 and 10 and might find themselves widowed while still in their teens.” [1]

2. Professor Richard Wortley and Professor Stephen Smallbone, both of whom state that prior to the 1900s girls married very young,

“In Medieval and early modern European societies, the age of marriage remained low, with documented cases of brides as young as seven years, although marriages were typically not consummated until the girl reached puberty (Bullough 2004).

Shakespeare’s Juliet was just 13, and there is no hint in the play that this was considered to be exceptional. The situation was similar on the other side of the Atlantic; Bullough reports the case in 1689 of a nine-year-old bride in Virginia. At the start of the nineteenth century in England, it was legal to have sex with a 10 year-old girl.” [2]

3. In the book, ‘Sex and Society’,

“Until the late 20th century U.S. age of consent laws specifically names males as perpetrators and females as victims. Following English law, in which the age was set at 12 in 1275 and lowered to 10 in 1576, ages of consent in the American colonies were generally set at 10 or 12. The laws protected female virginity, which at the time was considered a valuable commodity until marriage.

The theft of a girl’s chastity was seen as a property crime against her father and future husband. If two people were married and had sex, no matter what their age, no crime was committed because a woman was her husband’s property. In practice, too, the consent laws only protected white females, as many non-white females were enslaved or otherwise discriminated against by the legal system.” [3]

4. Richard A. Posner is chief judge of the U.S court of appeals, Seventh Circuit Chicago. Katherine B. Silbaugh is associate Professor at Boston University School of Law, they say that before the 1900s age of consent was ten years old,

“The law governing the age of consent has changed dramatically in the United States during this century. Most states codified a statutory age of consent during the nineteenth century, and the usual age was ten years.” [4]

5. The Scottish Law prior to 1900s by Sir John Comyns and Stewart Kyd,

“By the law of Scotland, a woman cannot contrabere sponsalia before her age of seven years. 1 Rol. 343. I. 20.
But by common law, persons may marry at any age. Co. Lit. 33. A.
And upon such marriage the wife shall be endowed, if the attain the age of nine years, of what whatsoever age her husband be; but not before the age of nine years. Co. L. 33. A.” [5]

6. Professor of Sociology Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese says that a 50 year old man being with a girl under 10 (being intimate) Under United States law was legal until the mid 1960s,

“In 1962, the American Law Institute recommended that the legal age of consent to sex- that is, the age below which sex is defined as statutory rape- be dropped in every state to age 10 (Katchadourian and Lund 1972: 439). In fact, until the mid 1960s, the legal age of consent in Delaware was 7 (Kling, 1965: 216). So a 50 year old man could legally have sexual intercourse with a 7 year old boy or girl.” [6]

7. Maureen Dabbagh is a writer and author. Born in Michigan, she serves as a Virginia Supreme Court Family Mediator, she echoes the same statements as previous authors,

“…the nineteenth century, the minimum age of consent for sexual intercourse in most American states was 10 years. In Delaware it was only 7 years.” [7]

8. Mike A. Males is an American sociologist who writes from a pro youth rights perspective. Males is a professor at the University of California, he writes,

“These early laws specified that a girl consenting to sex had to be at least 10 to 12 years old in most states, with a few specifying ages as old as 14 or 16. In Delaware, the age of consent was seven, based on ancient English laws setting the age squire.” [8]

9. Arthur Siccan Author of the Book: ‘What’s Wrong in America: A Look at Troublesome Issues in Our Country’, goes in a lot of detail on the issue of marriage at earlier times,

“Traditionally, across the globe, the age of consent for 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.


Sir Edward Coke in 17th century England ‘made it clear that the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband’s estate was 9. The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example Mary Hathaway of Virginia, was only 9 when she was married to William Williams.


Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss canons, 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. Historically, the English common law set the age of consent to range from 10- 12. In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at 10-12, and in one state Delaware, the age of consent was only 7.

Social and resulting legal attitudes toward the appropriate age of consent have drifted upwards in modern times. For example while ages from 10 to 13 were typically acceptable in Western countries during the mid-19the century, the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century were marked by changing.


I believe that a lot of our current mores come from reluctance to let our children mature mentally as quickly as our bodies do. Keep in mind that not all societies share Western mores. And to my surprise, until the latter part of the 19th Century, Children in the Western nations were engaged and married at a much earlier age. The trend to give children more time to mature is relatively new.


In his book, The Emphatic civilization, (Penguin, NY, 200) Jeremy Rifkin points out that the concept of adolescence only emerged during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century. Society started to think of childhood as extending beyond puberty, into the later teenage years. Before that, children were considered to graduate into adulthood with the onset of puberty.” [9]

10. The ’American Bar Association’ Journal [August 1996]:

“1275 English common law criminalizes statutory rape- sex between a man and a woman below the age of consent, which was first set at 12 years.
1576 Common Law age of consent lowered to 10 years.
1700s-1800s Statutory rape at common law adopted in the united states. States set the age of consent at 10 or 12 years.” [10]

11. Sinikka Elliott

“The statutes governing the minimum age under which sex cannot be legally consensual, and laws concerning marriage and workers rights, were modified to reflect these changing discourses around childhood. Age of sexual consent, for example, rose from 7 during colonial times to 10, 12, and eventually as high as 14 during the eighteenth centuries. By the late 1800s, the average age of consent in the United States was 14. Across the nation, however the age of consent was raised slowly, unevenly, and with great reluctance.” [11]

12. Susan M. Ross

“According to British common law during the colonial period, the age of consent was seven. Today we are astounded that girls of this age were assumed to know enough about sex (or about sin) to make such a decision competently.” [12]

13. Carolyn Cocca:

“At what age is a person capable of making and informed decision about whether or not to engage in sex? Would it be7,10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, or 21? Over the last 300 years, all the ages listed above were thought to be that magic age at which one could make such a decision, and all the ages listed above have, at various times, been inscribed into law as the age of consent to sex.” [13]

14. Merril D. Smith says that the age which a girl could marry was 10 to 13 in most societies,

“To that end, from ancient times to the present, many societies have acted to try to safeguard children from rape and other forms of sexual degradation, though they might define sexual degradation differently from era to era and from place to place. One way societies have tried to protect young girls is through laws that designate a statutory age of consent.

Such laws prohibit men from having sexual relations with females under a specified age on legal theory that they are too young and immature to make informed decision and, therefore, are incapable of giving a legal consent. Historically, the age of consent was set at 10 or 13 years, depending on the era and the culture, and tended to coincide with female puberty, which was also the age at which a female could marry without parental permission.” [14]

15. Melissa Hope Ditmore

“United States, the age of consent was much lower. For example, in New York, the age of consent was ten years until 1885. After 1885, age of consent laws changed around the country, reaching 16 in New York in 1889 and 18 in 1895. Prior to these changes the age of consent in most places in the United States was 10 or 12 years.” [15]

16. Caryn Neumann

“Historically the age of consent was set somewhere between 10 and 13 years, depending on the Era and the culture, and tending to coincide with female puberty. In modern United States, the age of consent ranges from 14 – 18 years with 16 years as the standard.” [16]

17. Martha Rosenthal:

“During colonial times in the United States, the age of consent was 10 (except in Delaware, where the age of consent was 7).” [17]

18. Paula S. Fass

“Age of consent laws rose from as low as ten to between thirteen (France 1863) AND SIXTEEN (England and Wales 1885).” [18]

19. Edward J. Wood says that Thomas Lord Berkley was contracted to a girl who was at the time 7 years old and were to consummate the marriage 4 years later, but due to illness the marriage was consummated the following year,

“Thomas, Lord Berkeley, was contracted to Margaret, daughter of Gerald Warren, Lord Lisle, in the forty-first year of Edward III.; and by reason of her tender age- she was then only about seven years old- it was arranged that she should remain with her father for four years; but sickness happening in the family, they were married in the November following.” [19]

The following Table below shows most of the European countries and American States, ‘Age of Consent.’
I would like to thank ‘chnm.gnm.edu’  for all the information they have provided on age of consent in 1880. I retrieved the information from this website: http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/24

Source

Date compiled from the following sources: Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. Translated by Michael Lombardi-Nash. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000; Killias, Martin. “The Emergence of a New Taboo: The Desexualization of Youth in Western Societies Since 1800.” European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 8 (2000): 466; Odem, Mary. Delinquent Daughters: Policing and Protecting Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995; “Worldwide Ages of Consent,” AVERTing HIV and Aids, http://www.avert.org/aofconsent.htm (accessed November 29, 2007).

Primary Source Text: Age Limit in Age of Consent Laws in Selected Countries.

188019202007
Austria141414
Belgium1616
Bulgaria131314
Denmark121215
England & Wales131616
Finland1216
France131315
Germany141414
Greece1215
Italy1614
Luxembourg151516
Norway1616
Portugal121214
Romania151515
Russia101416
Scotland121216
Spain121213
Sweden151515
Switzerlandvarious1616
Turkey151518
Argentina1213
Brazil1614
Chile202018
Ecuador1414
Canada121414
Australia
New South Wales121616
Queensland121716
Victoria121616
Western Australia121416
United States
Alabama101616
Alaska1616
Arizona121818
Arkansas101616
California101818
Colorado101815
Connecticut101616
District of Columbia121616
Delaware71616
Florida101818
Georgia101416
Hawaii16
Idaho101818
Illinois101617
Indiana121616
Iowa101616
Kansas101816
Kentucky121616
Louisiana121817
Maine101616
Maryland101616
Massachusetts101616
Michigan101616
Minnesota101816
Mississippi101816
Missouri121817
Montana101816
Nebraska101817
Nevada121816
New Hampshire101616
New Jersey101616
New Mexico101617
New York101817
North Carolina101616
North Dakota101818
Ohio101616
Oklahoma16
Oregon101618
Pennsylvania101616
Rhode Island101616
South Carolina101616
South Dakota101816
Tennessee101818
Texas101817
Utah101816
Vermont101616
Virginia121618
Washington121816
West Virginia121616
Wisconsin101618
Wyoming101616

[20]

Credit call to the Truth

References:

[1] A Medieval Miscellany By Margaret Wade Labarge page 52
[2]Internet Child Pornography: Causes, Investigation, and Prevention By Richard Wortley, Stephen Smallbon page 10
[3] Sex and Society, Volume 1 page 54
[4] A Guide to America’s Sex Laws by Richard A. Posner & Katharine B. Silbaugh page 44
[5] Sir John Comyns, Stewart Kyd A Digest of the Laws of England, Volume 2, page 73
[6] Opposing Hate Speech By Professor of Sociology Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese page 85
[7] Parental Kidnapping in America: An Historical and Cultural Analysis By Maureen Dabbagh Page 128
[8] Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities By Mike A. Males page 40
[9] What’s Wrong in America: A Look at Troublesome Issues in Our Country By Arthur Siccan
[10] ABA [American Bar Association] Journal Aug 1996 page 87
[11] Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers By Sinikka Elliott page 14-15
[12] American Families Past and Present: Social Perspectives on Transformations by Susan M. Ross page 40
[13] Adolescent Sexuality: A Historical Handbook and Guide by Carolyn Cocca page 15
[14] Encyclopedia of Rape by Merril D. Smith page 40
[15] Prostitution and Sex Work By Melissa Hope Ditmore page xxi [Introduction]
[16] Sexual Crime: A Reference Handbook By Caryn Neumann page 17
[17] Human Sexuality: From Cells to Society, [1st ed.: From Cells to Society] By Martha Rosenthal page 422
[18] The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World by Paula S. Fass page 235
[19] Edward J. Wood, The wedding day in all ages and countries (1869) page 209 – 210
[20] “Age of Consent Laws [Table],” in Children and Youth in History, Item #24, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/24 (accessed September 7, 2013). Annotated by Stephen Robertson