Laws on teenage sex are converging, notes The Economist. So is thinking about their purpose
In 1275 an English judge condemned a man for “ravishing” a girl aged under 12, the legal minimum for marriage at the time. Three centuries later the rape of a ten-year-old prodded another judge to ban mitigation pleas for the “benefit of clergy”, which had allowed defendants who could read a few words of scripture to escape the death penalty for capital crimes. By the 1880s most countries had set an age, usually between ten and 13, below which children were presumed too young to consent, making intercourse with them a crime. In the following decades, pushed by campaigns to protect children from sexual exploitation, many countries raised their threshold to between 16 and 18.
The age of consent
Now, attempts to balance child protection and teenage freedoms are seeing those clear lines blur. Instead of a single answer to the question, “How young is too young?” many countries are shifting to a “patchwork system of rules and exceptions”, says Kaye Wellings, a sexual-health researcher at London University. How serious an offence is, or even whether one has been committed, can depend on the age gap between the parties, as well as more subjective factors such as emotional maturity and the evidence of harm done.