The age of consent - Young people, sexuality and citizenship

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Late nineteenth-century society was increasingly preoccupied by the advance of the 'New Woman' and changing ideas about female sexuality (Smith-Rosenberg, 1989); sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis; and the corrupting influence of decadent homosexuals. As Elaine Showalter has argued, these social transformations generated a climate of fin de siècle 'sexual anarchy' and a search for new moral certainties (Showalter, 1992). It was in this context that purity movements pressed for greater regulation of sexuality, including increases in the minimum age for a girl to participate in sexual intercourse. An initial increase in the legal age for sexual intercourse from 12 to 13 occurred in England, Wales and Ireland via the Offences Against the Person Act 1875, a brief piece of legislation that did not cover Scotland. [...] The 1885 Criminal Amendment Act, applying in English law (including Ireland at this time) and Scottish law, subsequently created the 'age of consent' for a young woman to engage in sexual intercourse with a male which remained on the statute book in England, Wales and Scotland throughout the twentieth century. Section of the act (later recodified in the Sexual Offences Act 1956, part 1, s. 6) raised the age below which 'unlawful sexual intercourse' with a girl was prohibited to 16, although the minimum age for other sexual activity such as oral sex or masturbation remained 12 [...].

source: From the book 'The Age of Consent - Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship' by Matthew Waites (University of Glasgow, UK); Palgrave Macmillan; 2005