Age of consent reform
|Sex and the law|
(Varies by jurisdiction)
|Sex offender registration|
Age of consent reform is efforts to change age of consent laws. Proposed reforms typically include raising, lowering, or abolishing the age of consent, applying (or not applying) close-in-age exemptions, changing penalties, or changing how cases are examined in court. A related issue is whether or not to apply ages of consent to homosexual relationships that are different from those applied to heterosexual relationships. Organized efforts have ranged from academic discussions to political petitions.
Initiatives to change the age of consent
There have been many initiatives to raise the age of consent. Gratian, a canon lawyer in the 12th century, stated that consent could not take place before 7 years of age. The English government eventually decided on age of 12 for women as their limitation. At that time, the age was about 12 in most countries. Today it is usually set between 15 and 18.
In 1275, the age of consent in England was set at 12 (Westminster 1 statute), the first time an age of consent had been set in England. However, in 1875 the Offence Against the Persons Act raised it to 13 in Great Britain and Ireland. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 raised it to 16. In 1917 a bill raising the age of consent in Great Britain and Ireland from 16 to 17 was defeated by only one vote. In Northern Ireland in 1950 the legislature of Northern Ireland passed a law called Children and Young Persons Act in 1950 that raised the age of consent from 16 to 17. The male homosexual age of consent in the United Kingdom was set at 21 in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, lowered to 18 in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and then finally lowered equally to 16 in England and Wales and Scotland in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2000.
According to sociologist Matthew Waites, in the 1970s, a number of grassroots political actions took place in Britain in favor of lowering the age of consent, which he described as based on claims of children's rights, gay liberation, or as a way to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections.
In May 1974, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality suggested a basic age of consent of 16, but 12 "in cases where a defendant could prove the existence of meaningful consent". In September 1974, the Sexual Law Reform Society proposed lowering the age of consent to 14, with the requirement that below the age of 18 the burden of proof that consent for sexual activities between the parties existed would be the responsibility of the older participant.
In 1976, the British political advocacy group the National Council for Civil Liberties (now known as Liberty) published a proposal advocating reducing the age of consent laws to 10 years of age, only when both individuals are younger than 14, with a close-in-age exemption of two years if one of the involved individuals is older than 14 but younger than 16. The report was signed by Harriet Harman, who later went on to become a prominent figure in government and deputy leader of the Labour Party and the focus of media attention due to her affiliations with the NCCL.
The Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) lists abolition of age of consent laws among its immediate demands, with the added provision that there be alternate legal methods to protect children from sexual abuse.
Russia in 1998 lowered the age of consent from 16 to 14, but in 2002 raised the age of consent from 14 back to 16. Since then penalties have also generally increased. Vladimir Putin said that a party advocating lowering the age of consent cannot be legally registered (hence, be a legal party) in Russia.
In January 2004, a Division bench of the Kerala's High Court in Southern India suggested that the age of consent should be raised from 16 to 18 in that state. Justice R. Basant said he considered "illogic(al)" that a legal system in which an age of 18 is used for other purposes – like the Indian Majority Act, the Contract Act, the Juvenile Justice Act, the Child Marriage Restraint Act and the Representation of People Act – has a different approach in the case of sexual consent. The age of consent in India was raised from 16 to 18 in 2012.
Over the course of American history, the most commonly observed age of consent was 10 years. In 1880, 37 states had an age of consent of 10 years while 10 states kept an age of consent at 12, and Delaware maintained its age of consent at seven years, having lowered it from 10 in 1871.
In the late-19th century, a "social purity movement" composed of Christian feminist reform groups began advocating a raise in the age of consent to 16, with the goal of raising it ultimately to 18, and by 1920 almost all states had raised their age of consent to 16 or 18.
By the mid-1970s, there was widespread sympathy among homosexual activist groups for lowering the age of consent for all sexual activities (partially due to the disparate ages of consent for same-sex and opposite-sex sexual activity), with many gay publications freely discussing lowering it for boys. These tensions and antagonisms continued among activist circles until the 1980s; however, since the 1970s, gay liberationist groups promoting frontline advocacy against the age of consent were falling into decline.
A small number of voices continued into the 2000s among self-declared pedophiles on certain internet websites and chatrooms.
Two final states legislating their ages of consent into the 15–18 range were Georgia and Hawaii, from 14, raised in 1995 and 2001, respectively.
Georgia was the most notoriously resistant state to raising its age of consent in the early 1900s. Georgia's age of consent was 10 until 1918, and even then the age of consent was only raised to 14. Even after raising the age of consent in 1918, Georgia was still the only state in the United States to have an age of consent lower than 16. Georgia's age of consent remained at 14 until 1995, when a bill proposed by senator Steve Langford to make the age of consent 16 passed.
In 2006, following the infamous case of Genarlow Wilson (Wilson v. State), aggravated child molestation was reduced to a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in prison if the offender was under 19, the victim was either 14 or 15 years old, and the offender is no more than 48 months older than the victim. (Georgia penal code, 16-6-4). Previously aggravated child molestation (at any age) carried 10–20 years imprisonment regardless of the age difference between the victim and offender.
In 2007 in Kentucky Representative JR Gray sponsored legislation in the state legislature that passed making it a felony for a teacher to have sex with a student under the age of 18. He also discussed the possibility of raising the age of consent from 16 to 18 but a bill was not produced for that.
Prior to 1981 Wisconsin had an exception to the law that allowed adults who were guilty of sex with minors 15 or older to use as a defense that the victim understood the nature of the sexual act, but there was a rebuttable presumption in Wisconsin that minors under the age of 18 were not capable of informed consent to sex, but as stated, this could be argued against by the defendant in the court of law if the minor was 15 years of age or older. In 1981 the age of consent was lowered from 18 to 16 in Wisconsin, but at the same time it was made an automatic felony to have sex with anyone under 16, informed consent for a 15-year-old was no longer a defense an adult defendant could use in court. In 1983 the age of consent in Wisconsin was raised from 16 to 18, under the new law sex with a minor 16 or older carried the lesser penalty of a Class A Misdemeanor. A marital exemption was included in the law for an adult who was married to a minor 16 or older, but no close-in-age exception was.
In June 2006, the Canadian government proposed a bill to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16 (in 1890, it was raised from 12 to 14), while creating a near-age exemption for sex between 14- to 15-year-olds and partners less than 5 years older, and keeping an existing near-age clause for sex between 12–13 year olds and partners less than 2 years older. The initiative also maintains a temporary exception for already existing marriages of minors 14 and 15 years old to adults, but forbids new marriages like these in the future. The law took effect 1 May 2008.
Between 1990 and 2002, the Netherlands operated what was in effect an age of consent of 12, subject to qualifications. The relevant law, passed in November, 1990, permitted sexual intercourse for young people between 12 and 16, but allowed a challenge by parents based on erosion of parental authority or child exploitation, which would be heard by a Council for the Protection of Children. In 1979, the Dutch Pacifist Socialist Party supported an unsuccessful petition to lower the age of consent to 12.
The age of consent in Peru was increased from 14 to 18 in 2006 as elections approached, but in 2007, Peru's new Congress voted to return the age to 14 regardless of gender and/or sexual orientation. However, after strong public opposition, the law was raised back to 18 on June 27, 2007, by a vote of 74 to zero (22 abstentions). It was returned to 14 in January 2013.
In 1977 while a reform in the French penal code was under discussion in the parliament, a petition to decriminalize all consented relations between adults and minors below the age of fifteen was sent to Parliament but did not succeed in changing the law. In 1978 the petition was discussed in a broadcast by radio France Culture in the program "Dialogues", with the transcript later published under the title Sexual Morality and the Law in a book by Michel Foucault. The participants, including Foucault, play-writer/actor Jean Danet and novelist/gay activist Guy Hocquenghem had all signed the petition.
Some pedophiles have called to abolish the age of consent to allow adults to have sex freely with prepubescent children, arguing they can consent. Groups advocating pedophilia and the abolishment of age of consent laws include NAMBLA in the United States and Vereniging Martijn in the Netherlands. Several organisations in them have been involved with pro-pedophile activism in the past; only a few of these still exist today.
In the United States, many states have adopted close-in-age exemptions. These laws, known as "Romeo and Juliet laws" provide that a person can legally have consensual sex with a minor provided that he or she is not more than a given number of years older, generally four years or less. Some Romeo and Juliet laws (such as the law in Michigan and Florida) do not make it legal for a person below the age of consent to have sex with a slightly older person, but may exempt the older partner from sex offender registration.
Romeo and Juliet laws were passed in 2007 in Connecticut and Indiana. In Indiana, a change in the law decriminalizes consensual sex between adolescents if they are found by a court to be in a "dating relationship" with an age difference of four years or less and other states have adopted other reforms. Michigan passed a Romeo and Juliet Law in 2011.
These reforms have not been uncontroversial. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry vetoed Romeo and Juliet laws that had been passed by the legislature in 2009, but signed one in 2011 to go into effect in September of that year. A 2011 Romeo and Juliet bill failed to pass in the Illinois legislature. In the State v. Limon case, Kansas's Romeo and Juliet law was found to be unconstitutional because it excluded same-sex sexual conduct.
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Abolish age-of-consent laws. We recognise the right of individuals to enter into the sexual relations they choose provided this does not conflict with the rights of others. Alternative legislation to protect children from sexual abuse.
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