“Juliet Was Just Thirteen”: The Age of Consent and the Transition to Adulthood in the United States, 1965–90

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 11:10 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Timothy Cole, Temple University
In the United States, the age of consent has long played an important role in defining the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, drawing a clear distinction between young people who are deemed incapable of making mature decisions about sex from those who are “old enough” to control their own sexuality.  For much of the nation’s history, Americans have defined childhood itself through its “separation from adult sexuality,” believing that children were, and should remain, sexually innocent for as a long as possible.  Beginning in the late 1960s, however, American lawmakers, parents, and educators were forced to confront the fact that large numbers of American adolescents and teenagers – who were children before the law – were sexually active.  Public recognition of this apparent contradiction led to calls  adjust a variety of different “age of consent,” laws, which set minimum ages for consenting to intercourse, acquiring birth control, and having an abortion without parental consent, and each of these laws became the subject of intense debate during the last three decades of the twentieth century.  Academics have framed these debates as an extension of broader struggles over gender roles and reproductive politics that raged throughout this period – but they were also part of a separate, ongoing debate over the boundaries between youth and adulthood.  During the same period, state and federal lawmakers were also re-evaluating other minimum age limits, such as the drinking age, voting age, and age of majority.  Reframing state-level debates over the age of consent as part of a broader struggle over young people’s legal status, this paper asserts that the age of consent - and most adults’ discomfort with young people’s sexuality – helped to redefine young people’s legal status, and Americans’ understanding of childhood and adulthood as life stages during the 1970s and 80s.
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