Age of Consent Laws
Lesson Plan: Childhood Seen Through Age of Consent Laws
by Sharon Cohen
Time Estimated: two 45-minute classes
- Describe and analyze changes and continuities in Western childhood during the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Define "age of consent" and analyze age of consent laws to see continuity and change over time in dealing with age, gender, and context.
- Analyze point and view and purpose of historical documents, including audience, author, place, and time period.
- Compare laws to other sources (including articles, commentaries, and speeches) to analyze changing definitions of childhood over time and place.
- Analyze the influence of Enlightenment and other ideologies on age of consent laws.
- Discuss how historians study and find evidence of the developing concept of childhood.
- Sufficient copies of sources:
The Trial of Stephen Arrowsmith
"The Violation of Virgins"
Petition to Raise the Age of Consent
"Review of the Age-of-Consent Legislation in Texas"
Adolescent Sexual Experimentation Should Not Be a Crime
U.S. Supreme Court Decision Justifying Gender-Based Age of Consent Laws
- Copies of the "Childhood in Medieval England" article
- Copies of the "Age of Menarche in Norway" chart
- Copies of the APPARTS worksheet
- Poster paper, magic markers
Hook (10 minutes)
To get the students thinking about what childhood means, have them write a short description of their daily lives when they were eight. Then, have them share their descriptions with each other in groups of two or three.
In-class Reading (25 minutes)
Explain to the students that they will be comparing their childhood to children's lives in medieval England. Have the students read the "Childhood in Medieval England" article, either individually or in pairs. Then, ask the students the following questions:
- How was children's work life similar and different from today's?
- How was children's leisure time similar to and different from today's?
- In general, how were people's understanding of the boundary between childhood and adulthood similar to and different from our understanding of that boundary today?
Lecture (10 minutes)
Give students a brief lecture to provide them with a basic understanding of age of consent laws: what they are, why they were made, and how they can indirectly define childhood by setting a boundary between childhood and adulthood. The purpose of the lecture is to prepare the students to read the introductory article at home before the next class; the first paragraph of the article is a good source for this lecture.
Assign students background reading from the introductory article. You may also wish to have them respond in two to three paragraphs to the following prompt: "What should the age of consent be in America, today? Defend your answer, citing at least three issues discussed in the reading."
Share (5 minutes)
Have students share the specific age they selected, as well as their findings on historical age of consent laws from the reading.
Small-Group Work (30 minutes)
This activity helps students further understand the various issues around age of consent laws, as well as give them a chance to practice their document analysis skills. Break up the class into groups of two to three students. Assign half of the student groups all three documents from group A (below) and the remaining student groups all three documents from group B.
- Group A
Source 2: "The Violation of Virgins" Newspaper Article
Source 7: U.S. Supreme Court Decision Justifying Gender-Based Age of Consent Laws Legal Document
Source 9: "Isn't she a little young?" Billboard
- Group B
Source 3: Petition to Raise the Age of Consent
Source 5: Increased Age of Consent Speech
Source 6: Adolescent Sexual Experimentation Should Not Be a Crime Commentary
Have the students analyze their sources to find the point of view and purpose in each source. The students then should identify how the sources show a continuity or change in the age of consent law for that country, region, or colony. Each group should fill out an APPARTS worksheet for each document as part of this analysis. Then, have each group jigsaw share their findings with a group that analyzed the other set of documents to share their findings with each other.
Lecture/discussion (10 minutes)
To help students understand how the Enlightenment influenced these changes, have the students read this short excerpt from Rousseau's Emile, or read it to them aloud (along with the background information). In a short discussion, have them explain how these Enlightenment ideas might relate to changes in age of consent laws.
Day Three (Optional Activities)
Data Analysis (25 minutes):
This activity will help students see the major changes and continuities in age of consent laws. Divide the students into groups of two. Pass out copies of two secondary sources to each group: Source 10, the Age of Consent Laws Table, and the Age of Menarche in Norway chart. Explain to the class that menarche is a female's first menstrual cycle, and is often considered the beginning of puberty. Before beginning the analysis, ask the students the following two questions, either in a short discussion or in pairs:
- Are these primary or secondary sources? How do you know?
- Who was the author of each? What do you think his or her purpose was in creating this source?
Next, ask the students to analyze the two sources by answer the following questions. Tell them to link their answers to specific evidence from the documents and readings they have encountered over the past two days.
- Describe the trends you see in the legal age of consent. What are their changes over time? Are there continuities?
- Describe the trends. Do you see in the age at which puberty begins? Are their changes over time? Continuities?
- What political, economic, and social forces might have led to the changes and/or continuities in the age of consent?
- Why might the changes and continuities in the age of consent vary from one region to another?
- What might have caused the age of puberty to change over time? (Note to teacher: many scholars believe that this is only due to improvements in nutrition during childhood, possibly during the prenatal period, too.)
- What might be the political, economic, and social effects of changes you see in both sets of data?
Finally, have the students write a thesis statement (1-2 sentences) to address the prompt:
- Analyze the changes and continuities in age of consent laws in Western Europe between 1850 and the present. Be sure to include causes of changes and/or continuities in your thesis.
Socratic Circle (20 minutes)
This activity helps students understand the political and social implications of age of consent laws. Using a Socratic Circle, have students discuss how a state-defined concept of childhood could affect minority groups and/or colonized peoples. Ask the students to re-read Source 5 (Increased Age of Consent Speech), then discuss the following questions:
- Why were British officials anxious about changing the age of consent laws? What could the potential consequences of these changes have been?
- How might an 11-year old Hindu girl have reacted to the change in the law? How might her mother have reacted? Why?
- How might Muslims and/or Christians living in India have responded to the changes in laws? What implications might their reactions (vs. Hindu reactions) have for the British colonial government?
- How might changes in these laws affect the relationship between a state and minority groups living in that state (not a colony)? Use specific examples, such as Indian immigrants in England, Jews in Germany, or Africans in the United States.
Have students evaluate the use of age of consent laws by historians (i.e. historiography) as a tool to trace the development of the concept of childhood and other stages of the lifespan (e.g., teenage years). Students should write a paper or create a presentation that responds to the following questions:
- Should historians use age of consent laws to trace the changes and continuities in the concept of childhood and/or teenage years? Why or why not?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
- What other types of information should they also examine?
- What viewpoints are omitted by focusing on the legal age of consent? How could historians better understand those viewpoints? What types of documents would help in this effort?
Less Advanced Students
Help students understand what they are reading by creating a vocabulary list, and/or using shorter excerpts of the articles and documents rather than entire excerpts. Create scaffolding worksheets to help students record the changes and continuities they find in the documents; e.g., providing a grid for students to record the political, economic, social, cultural changes in each document.
How to Cite This Source
Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/230 (accessed September 26, 2016).
- Primary Sources
- The Trial of Stephen Arrowsmith (1678) [Trial Record]
- "The Violation of Virgins" [Newspaper Article]
- Petition to Raise the Age of Consent (1887) [Petition]
- "Review of the Age-of-Consent Legislation in Texas"[Magazine Article, 1895]
- Speech Defending an Increased Age of Consent in India (1891) [Speech Transcript]
- Adolescent Sexual Experimentation Should Not Be a Crime [Commentary]
- Jailbait (1957) [Song Lyrics]
- U.S. Supreme Court Decision Justifying Gender-Based Age of Consent Laws [Legal Document]
- Rejection of a Higher Age of Consent for Homosexual Acts [Legal Decision]
- Isn't she a little young? Sex with a minor. Don't go there. [Billboard]
- Age of Consent Laws [Table]
- Age of Menarche in Norway [Chart]