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In practice, these laws were often used to control the behavior of the working-class girls.Yet reformers at the time saw no distinction between protection and regulation: in making it a crime for girls to decide to have sexual intercourse outside marriage, the law protected them from themselves and from the immature understanding that led them to behaviors reformers considered immoral.They also argued that the age of consent should be aligned with other benchmarks of development, such as the age at which girls could enter into contracts and hold property rights, typically 21 years.Opponents remained focused on physiological maturity, however, and argued that girls in their teens were sufficiently developed not to need legal protection.An underage girl did not have to physically struggle and resist to the limit of her capacity in order to convince a court of her lack of consent to a sexual act, as older females did; in other words, the age of consent made it easier to prosecute a man who sexually assaulted an underage girl.
This module traces the shifting ways that the law has been defined, debated and deployed worldwide and from the Middle Ages to the present.Like France, many other countries, increased the age of consent to 13 in the 19th century.Nations, such as Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons, that adopted or mirrored the Napoleonic code likewise initially set the age of consent at 10-12 years and then raised it to between 13 and 16 years in the second half of the 19th century. laws did not change in the wake of England's shift. Behind the inconsistency of these different laws was the lack of an obvious age to incorporate into law.Moreover, they argued, by late adolescence girls possessed sufficient understanding about how to use the law to blackmail unwary men.Historians have argued that increasing the age of consent also gave the law a more pronounced regulatory dimension.