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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.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.Once upon a time, a couple of decades ago or so, I was in one of those not unusual relationships between a sophomore girl and a senior boy.In true high school style, we were fixed up by friends at the beginning of my sophomore year and had an on-again-off-again flirtation throughout the fall and winter (too much of which involved me watching from a distance as his relationship with a perky senior named Suzanne played out in the halls between classes).Today’s Age of Consent Laws The truth is that these laws cannot make such distinctions but lawmakers seem to have attempted to account for variations in relationships.
And what does all of this say about how society handles teen sex?By the time we had sex, we had been together for many months and professed our love for each other, I had nursed him back to puffy-cheeked health after he’d had his wisdom teeth out and he had spent a great deal of time with my family on Cape Cod.Though I can’t say it was a perfect relationship or the balance of power was entirely equal (he held some advantage by virtue of being older and more experienced), I can assure you that the sexual aspect of our relationship was consensual, mutually pleasurable, non-exploitative, honest, and protected from pregnancy and STDs.Each state has its own law and decides a number of factors for itself, including age of consent, minimum age of “victim,” age differential, and minimum age of “perpetrator” in order to prosecute. Only 12 states have a single age of consent below which an individual cannot consent to sexual intercourse and above which they can.As I mentioned earlier, Massachusetts is one of those states—the age of consent there is simply 16.