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Monday, August 15, 2011

The age of consent

I am posting this because some Christians I debate say that allowing gay marriage will lead to people marrying children and animals. Of course, the idea that people will want to marry animals is absurd. There many be the unusual situation, but for the most part, people are not attracted to animals in a sexual way. Besides, animals cannot give consent, therefore, it is a moot point.

However, children have been allowed to get married for centuries in Christian societies. I am not saying that I believe it is ok for children to get married. On the contrary, I believe waiting until someone is in their late 20's or early 30's is a better time for that. However, I want to point out that people, including Christians,  have been marrying young girls for centuries.

In Ancient Rome, it was very common for girls to marry and have children shortly after the onset of puberty.

The first recorded age-of-consent law dates back 800 years: In 1275, in England, as part of the rape law, a statute, Westminster 1, made it a misdemeanor to "ravish" a "maiden within age," whether with or without her consent. The phrase "within age" was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was twelve years of age.[4]

In the 12th century Gratian, the influential founder of Canon law in medieval Europe, accepted age of puberty for marriage to be between twelve and fourteen but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if the children were older than seven. There were authorities that said that consent could take place earlier. Marriage would then be valid as long as neither of the two parties annulled the marital agreement before reaching puberty, or if they had already consummated the marriage. It should be noted that Judges honored marriages based on mutual consent at ages younger than seven, in spite of what Gratian had said; there are recorded marriages of two and three year olds.[3]

The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only nine when she was married to William Williams. Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) made it clear that "the marriage of girls under twelve was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband's estate was nine even though her husband be only four years old."[3]

Reliable data for when people used to marry is very difficult to find. In England for example, the only reliable data on age at marriage in the early modern period comes from records which involved only those who left property after their death. Not only were the records relatively rare, but not all bothered to record the participants' ages, and it seemed that the more complete the records are, the more likely they are to reveal young marriages. Additionally, 20th and 21st centuries' historians have sometimes shown reluctance to accept data regarding young ages of marriage, and would instead explain the data away as a misreading by a later copier of the records.[3]

A small group of Italian and German states which introduced an age of consent in the 16th century also set it at twelve years. Towards the end of the 18th century, other European nations also began to enact age of consent laws. The French Napoleonic Code established an age of consent of eleven years in 1791, which was raised to thirteen years in 1863. Nations such as Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons, initially set the age of consent at ten–twelve years and then raised it to between thirteen and sixteen years in the second half of the 19th century.[4]

In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at ten or twelve, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only seven. A New York Times article states that it was still aged seven in Delaware in 1895. [5] Female reformers and advocates of social purity initiated a campaign in 1885 to petition legislators to raise the legal age of consent to at least sixteen, with ultimate goal to raise the age to eighteen; the campaign was successful: by 1920, almost all states had raised the age of consent to sixteen or eighteen.[6][7]

Social (and the resulting legal) attitudes toward the appropriate age of consent have drifted upwards in modern times. For example, while ages from ten to thirteen were typically acceptable in Western countries during the mid-19th century,[1] the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were marked by changing attitudes towards sexuality, childhood and adolescence, resulting in raising the ages of consent.[4]

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