Why Is The Age Of Consent 16?

November 17, 2013 in Daily Bulletin

william stead

Over in Britain, there have been a couple of suggestions recently to lower the age of consent from 16 to 15 or even to 13. (See the articles for the quite different reasoning behind the suggestions). But why is the age of consent 16 today?

  • In 1875, the age of consent was raised from 12 to 13 in the UK.
  • There wasn’t much upper-class motivation to change the age of consent. Their assumption was that among the working classes girls would be abused by their brothers and fathers anyway, so how would a law help? To change attitudes would require a scandal.
  • William Stead (pictured) was a Victorian gentleman and a pioneering investigative journalist. He agreed to pay £5 (£500 today) for a night with a 13 year old virgin, who had been drugged and duped for his purposes. Stead wrote that when they met she gave “a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb”
  • Stead published his newspaper article, and caused public outrage. Within a week the age of consent had been raised to 16.
  • Sensationalism may have helped to raise the age of consent, but it was indeed sensationalism. The 13 year old was not drugged, nor had her mother knowingly sold her into prostitution as Stead had alleged. His credibility was questioned, and he was jailed for 3 months.
  • The act of parliament that raised the age of consent to 16 also closed down many brothels and, as a last minute amendment, outlawed “gross indecency” between two men; this was the law that would see Oscar Wilde sent fatally to jail in 1895.

For the full story, head over to the BBC.

Source: BBC History