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Not only did they spend time in jail and postpone any future plans, their names now sit on sex offender registries alongside those of serial rapist, child pornographers, and pedophiles.

And as is human nature, all I could think about was my own life story.

In Massachusetts—which has one of the least nuanced laws regarding age of consent—a person under 16 cannot give consent, and I was three months shy of my 16 birthday that summer.

Though they remained largely unchanged for several centuries, the laws began to morph in the late 1800s and early 1900s as other aspects of societies and the role of women changed. In the 1920s and 30s as the modern concept of the teenager began to emerge and movements formed to fight child prostitution and exploitation, the age of consent in most states was raised to 16 or even 18.

Not everyone agreed with these changes, however, some argued that teenage women “were sufficiently developed not to need legal protection,” and, moreover, that “by late adolescence girls possessed sufficient understanding about how to use the law to blackmail unwary men.” Steven Robertson of the University of Australia Sydney points out in an article that the term “jailbait,” gained popularity in the 1930s because people recognized “teenage girls as sexually attractive, even sexually active, but legally unavailable.” Still, even if people acknowledged young women as sexual, the general consensus was that the laws were necessary to protect them from exploitation: “…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.” Feminists of the 1970s agreed that it was important to protect young people from exploitation but worked to ensure that these laws did not “unduly restrict the sexual autonomy of young women.” Part of this became efforts to make the laws gender-neutral and ensure an understanding of the rationale behind them: “Aiming to challenge stereotypes of female passivity and growing concern about male victimization, they made it clearer that the laws concerned all youth—male and female—and that the laws protected them from exploitation rather than ensuring their virginity.” During the debates over welfare reform in the mid-nineties—the same debates that brought us the federal government’s increasing investment in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—a new rationale for these laws was thrown about.

History and Purpose of Statutory Rape Laws Statutory rape laws (which are called by a plethora of other names) refer to those laws that “criminalize voluntary sexual acts involving a minor that would be legal if not for the age of one or more of the participants.” The premise behind these laws is that until a certain age, young people are incapable of giving their consent for sexual behavior but the intent behind the laws has morphed over the 700 years or so since they were first codified.

The first known law, passed in Westminster England in 1275, made it illegal to “ravish” a “maiden” under the age of 12 (also the age at which a girl could legally marry) without her consent. The result was that an underage girl did not have to show that she had struggled in order to prove that she had not given her consent as her older friends did.

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