Age of Consent-Part One

Pedophilia (or, for those outside the US, pædophilia) is an ugly thing.  The many scandals and tragedies that have been reported in the opening years of the twenty‑first century, whether financial, political, ethical, gun‑related or personal, few have the ability to wrench guts or stir up emotion like a sexual scandal involving minors or children. 

September 11, 2001, stirred national outrage, Sandy Hook and Aurora sorrow and sympathy for the victims, but the sexual abuses attributed to Catholic clergy, Jerry Sandusky or former congressman Mark Foley stir emotions that reach even deeper than that.  Felons imprisoned for sex crimes against children are treated very harshly by their fellow inmates.  Behind all of those feelings lies the ugly word “pedophilia”.

Pedophilia is, in fact, classified as a sexually‑based psychiatric disorder involving a sexual attraction to prepubescent children.  Medically speaking, it is a condition that applies to adults.  The previous edition[i] of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) defines it as applying only to people 16 or over who have an abnormal sexual interest in children 11 years old or younger (or, in the case of teenagers, children five or more years younger).  The definition is not precise, since puberty and mental maturity proceed at different rates in individuals, but it does, at least, provide a standard for professionals to evaluate behavior.

Clinically, sexual attraction based on age is a chronophilia, a sexual fixation on partners of a particular age group.  Where minors are concerned, it is divided into pedophilia, confined to an attraction to prepubescent children (under 11) ; hebephilia[ii], an attraction to children at the onset of puberty (11 to 14) and ephebophilia, an attraction to teens 15 and older.  In order for a person to be considered in one of these categories, requires three basic things.  Lets consider a hypothetical subject named Pat (as in Its Pat – could be a man or a woman). 

First, Pats attraction must be an overwhelming preference for children rather than adults of a his or her age.  Second, the attraction must persist for a period of six months or more.  Finally, it must lead Pat to either feel anxiety over those desires or try to enact those desires, perhaps indirectly through child pornography or directly by sexual contact with a victim of the desired age.  Pats actions must be deliberate, sexual, and repeated.  If Pats attraction is to prepubescent children, a psychiatrist considers her or him just as much a pedophile for just having a collection of ads for children’sunderwear as for being an actual molester.  The clinical definition is based on the attraction, not the actions.  Okay, thats enough for the textbook stuff.

Many people extend the notion of pedophilia to sex with anyone who is a minor, regardless of the age of the child.  Its also almost the exact opposite of the clinical definition – based on acts, not urges.  The law is also in conflict with  popular opinion.  Many countries and US states have laws establishing ages of consent that are below (sometimes well below) the age of majority.  Nor is history on the side of modern sensibilities.  Over time, the age of consent has gone up, while other markers of maturity and adulthood have moved down.  Throughout most of human history, women have been considered of marriageable age at the onset of puberty, typically anywhere from 12 to 14, and their husbands tended to be much older.  One commenter, responding to a news blog post about the Jerry Sandusky case, referred to Shakespeares character of Romeo as a pedophile (Romeos age is generally assumed to be around fourteen or fifteen, but dialogue in the play puts Juliet at thirteen[iii]).  Of course in Renaissance Verona, both protagonists were of marriageable age and any notion to the contrary would have been ridiculed.  Among the high nobility, this was sometimes carried to extremes; betrothals and actual marriages between young children or even infants were not unknown.  This does not sit well with people – most notably conservatives – who assume that modern conditions reflect the majority of human history.

However, throughout most of that history, the only thing defining marriageable age and age of consent was the onset of puberty for both boys and girls.  Gradually, restrictions emerged, usually in terms of other sex-related, and usually criminal, matters such as rape and prostitution.  A thirteenth-century English law defined rape as forced sex with a woman ‘within age’ meaning age of marriage, which was twelve at the time.  Its important to note that the criminal act was not the sex itself, but the use of force[iv].  Still, there was more force in custom than in law.  Records from American colonial times commonly show dowries being paid to girls twelve years of age, sometimes as young as nine.  In Middlesex County, Virginia, there is a record of fourteen‑year‑old Sarah Halfhide marrying twenty‑one‑year‑old Richard Perrot; Sarah was already a widow.  By the eighteenth century, emerging democracies and consolidated nation-states began to establish consent laws.  The constitution of the French Revolution made it eleven.  Most of the monarchies of Europe varied between ten and twelve, as did the newly formed United States, following English common law.  In 1875, England made consent statutory at age thirteen, largely to keep children with ages still in single digits from working in brothels.  It should be noted that all of these laws only dealt with the consent of girls; boys were not considered in matters of consent, and, since homosexuality was almost universally illegal, it wasnt even addressed

In the US, the age of consent remained between ten and twelve until the 1880s, although in Delaware it was seven as late as 1895.  The late nineteenth century saw the Third Great Awakening, a religious movement that gave rise to politicizing a number of moral issues.  The best known of these were prohibition and womens suffrage.  Less noted in popular history was a crusade to raise the age of consent and marriage.  Reformers at the time wanted both ages to be at least sixteen and preferably eighteen.  Many of these movements succeeded, at least for a time.  Prohibition was ratified on 16 January 1919 and the womens vote on 18 August 1920.  The push to raise the age of consent was fueled by lurid accounts of child prostitution, first in England[v], whence it spread to the rest of Europe and America, and, by the mid-1920s, the age of consent had risen from between ten and twelve to between sixteen and seventeen.  In most of these countries, ruled by monarchies with parliamentary legislatures, these reforms were enacted on a nationwide basis.  In the US, they were enacted state by state, resulting in a patchwork of laws with many inconsistencies from one to another. 

Theres another issue as well: the increase in the age of consent gradually criminalized behavior, namely sex and marriage with girls aged ten to sixteen, which had been a societal norm.  The commenter who called Romeo a pedophile was speaking from modern mores against social norms of Shakespeares day.  Its not enough to say, perhaps frivolously, that sixteen is the new ten, but to consider whether, and how quickly, human behavior can adapt to changes in law, society and popular notions of morality.

To be continued.


[i]. The current edition of the DSM, DSM 5, was published on 18 May 2013.

[ii]. DSM-IV used the umbrella term pedophilia whereas DSM-5 separates it from hebephilia on the basis of the age the persons who are the focus of the desires.

[iii]. Just accept these figures.  Im not going to get drawn into an argument about Shakespeare.  The Bard, for his part, would not be able to understand why Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita caused such a sensation.

[iv]. It is interesting to note that a nine hundred year old law defines rape in terms of force, violence, aggression and consent, while modern-day Republican lawmakers consider it only in sexual terms and as a result of raging hormones.

[v]. One of the most influential was a series of 1885 articles in the Pall Mall Gazette titled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon by the magazine=s editor, William T. Stead, who died on the Titanic.

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Posted by on June 11, 2013. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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11 Responses to Age of Consent-Part One

  1. rowdy62 Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 11:17 am

    I’ve long had a problem with the “age of consent” in the United States because it’s so fluid. What is law in one state is not in another, and this can be confusing, not to mention dangerous to those who have girlfriends between the ages of 16-18. Excellent article by the way.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      June 11, 2013 at 11:42 am

      Rowdy that’s precisely one of the many things that trouble me about laws designed to identify and label “pedophiles.” While E.A. does a great job with defining it historically, today there are so many loopholes in the law, all varying from state to state, that it’s disturbing and often harmful.

  2. rowdy62 Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Agreed Mike. My neighbor’s 22 year old son was classified as a sex offender because he fell in love with a 16 year old girl, a fellow HS student. He was 18 at the time and it happened just a month before he was due to graduate. His love affair happened to be with a woman who was classified as “under-age” and the boy was charged with statutory rape. Although he didn’t do any jail time he’s still on probation and is a registered sex offender. That’s just wrong dude.

  3. Michael John Scott Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

    As a career law enforcement officer I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this happen Rowdy, especially back in the ’60’s and ’70’s. That it still goes on is mind-numbing.

  4. Rachael Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 11:54 am

    What aggravates me is the confusion over whether pedophilia is a crime or a psychological disorder that requires not punishment, but treatment. Again this varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I think it’s free will, like anything else.

  5. Bill Formby Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I don’t know about the free will thing, unless you are talking about some type definitive age gaps. I just don’t see an 8 or 9 year old being able to give consent where at 13 or 14 it is totally different. There is also the issue of whether there is a differential power structure such as teacher to student or boss to employee. Many states are now recognizing age differential as a mitigating factor in terms of whether it is a rape case or not. There was recently on case in which a teachers was given 25 years to life for a year long affair with a 13 year old male student. This might be a bit over the top.

    • Rachael Reply

      June 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      I meant free choice. A person makes a choice, in this case the offender, to offend, so I don’t see where this is come psychological humbuggery as opposed to just being straight up criminality. I wasn’t talking about the victim Bill. Sorry.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      June 11, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      Bill the example you cite is definitely over the top and is an example or moral outrage being a tool of the law. That’s just plain wrong and sentences like these are often driven by the religious who are symbols of moral outrage, most of which is just a load of BS.

  6. Lyndon Probus Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    According to the DSM V: “[Pedophiles] would be diagnosed with pedophilic disorder either if their attractions toward children are causing them guilt, anxiety, alienation, or difficulty in pursuing other personal goals, or else if their urges cause them to approach children for sexual gratification in real life,” says sexologist Ray Blanchard, PhD, adjunct psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto.

    What’s interesting is the paradigm shift between the DSM IV and the DSM V, with the former defining pedophilia and the latter defining pedophiliac disorder. Like most theories, research that speaks to them builds over time changing the language which may substantially change treatment or punishment orientation.

    • E.A. Blair Reply

      June 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      I was reaching towards that in the article, while trying not to get overly pedantic. Than you for the information, since I have not seen a copy of DSM-5.

      I will be considering these comments as I complete work on part two.

      EAB

  7. cheleoh77 Reply

    June 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I think anyone who messes with a child, no matter their age, should be locked up for ever if not jjst shot.

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