“With Her Consent”: The Conundrum of “Carnal Knowledge” in Turn-of-the-Century New Orleans

Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:40 PM
Conference Room D (Sheraton New York)
Emily Landau, University of Maryland at College Park
How do we locate consent? In the 1890s, Louisiana raised the age of consent to sixteen. Louisiana’s move was part of a national trend, a purity campaign that sought to safeguard the chastity of young women in the face of urbanization, and in response to transitions in courtship, dating, and adolescent sexuality more broadly. In changing the age of consent, these states also changed the meaning of consent, the parameters of childhood and adolescence, and the boundaries of acceptable sexuality among girls, young women, and men and boys as well. Redefining consent, finally, implied the redefinition of its opposite. But what is the opposite of consent? Is it rape?

“Rape” is historically constructed and contested. Its meaning both depends upon and conveys privilege where it is applied. The same is true of “consent.” Consent, a conceptual cornerstone of free society, implies the essential liberty of citizens. Unfree persons cannot consent. Historically, unfree persons could not be raped, either.

Louisiana’s age of consent law made sex with a girl under sixteen statutory rape. The state defined this as: “Carnal knowledge of a minor with her consent.” The law afforded young women and their parents the opportunity to press criminal charges against men with whom their daughters had had “consensual” sex. They had only to prove the age of their daughters. Sometimes, the charges came once the girl became pregnant. Other times, the charges clearly describe coerced sex. And through the cases, the testimony and questions, the judgments, both legal and social, we glimpse a world. This paper will examine several such cases, analyzing their testimony for the light they shed on courtship and sexuality in both white and African American communities during the early twentieth century in New Orleans.