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Age of consent laws: Puritan notions of right and wrong

By Melissa Kang - posted Monday, 21 March 2005

What is the enduring appeal of Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps it is because they were an adolescent couple experiencing the absolute intensity of sexual and romantic attraction to which most people in the human race can relate. While the story is about more than their personal encounters with infatuation and lust, their sexual drives and awakenings - which are central to the plot - are accepted and valued as core human qualities.

Juliet was 14, and about to be married off to the nobleman Paris, when she fell in love with Romeo. Provided she married, sex at her age was OK. Fast forward a few hundred years and adolescent sexuality in Western societies seems a whole lot more complicated, despite the fact that women and men can now control their fertility, fall in love more than once and partner with whomever they choose, and that diverse sexualities are increasingly acknowledged, and in many places, accepted and welcomed.

The concerns of some Western societies about adolescent sexuality are predominantly moralistic and a legacy of Christian, particularly puritan, notions of right and wrong. While societies must adopt moral positions on a variety of human behaviours - such as violence, the abuse of children, the exploitation of minority populations - what informs our moral position on adolescent sexuality? Should there be an “age of consent”? And if so, does it serve a moral, or some other, purpose?


Historically, if sexual activity led to pregnancy and childbirth, this created potential complications regarding property and inheritance. Hence, the age of consent was closely related to the age at which marriage and the production of heirs could take place, and served an economic function apart from anything else. The illegality of homosexual sex was (and still is) connected to religious beliefs.

The laws surrounding the age of consent to have sex vary between states and territories in Australia. In some states the age of consent is 16 years for sex, in others the age depends on whether it is heterosexual or homosexual sex, or whether it is anal sex (regardless of the sex of the partner). In most states and territories there is a provision that prohibits adults with “special care” of a young person (such as teachers and step-parents) from having sex with that young person if they are under 18 years. In ACT and Victoria, sex between consenting individuals of any sex is allowed between the age of 10 and 16 provided there is less than 2 years age difference.

How well do these laws reflect our current understanding of adolescent sexuality? The law in these latter two states appears to come closest to reflecting the absolute normality of adolescent sexuality, with the age difference provision a reasonable safety check for preventing abuse and exploitation.

It must be recognised that adolescence as a distinct life stage is very modern: it was only really “invented” 100 years ago. Modern theories about adolescence regard it as a crucial period for sexual development, and, conversely, sexuality is seen as having a central role in adolescent development. Undoubtedly the surge of sex hormones and physiological changes associated with puberty primarily account for these theories, and in studies of human sexual behaviour, puberty appears to be a prerequisite for copulation.

But is it really that simple? When does human sexuality in the individual begin? The human male fetus can experience penile erection and female infants (and probably fetuses) can lubricate. Masturbation and sexual play among infants and young children are common, (although their meaning is interpreted by adults). Childhood sexuality and sexual behaviour have seldom been the subject of scientific or social enquiry.

The cognitive maturity that rapidly develops between about the ages of 11 and 14 is deemed sufficient to enable many young adolescents to consent to their own medical treatment. It is reasonable to assume that the mature adolescent can also make decisions about whether they want to engage in sexual activity.


Adolescent sexuality in Australia has been studied almost exclusively in relation to sexual and associated behaviours. The scientific study of sexuality allows us to identify behavioural and demographic “risk” factors, with the word “risk” replacing the morally-based “wrong”. Health “risk” has, in fact, become a thin disguise for an ongoing moral agenda.

Among Australian adolescents, about half have had (hetero) sexual intercourse by the age of 16. The majority of these do not consistently use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections and notifications for Chlamydia have steadily increased over the past few years. About a quarter of secondary school students surveyed in the last national sex survey said that their last sexual encounter took place while intoxicated and was unsafe or unwanted as a result. (AIHW 2003).

These scientifically valid findings add plenty of fuel to the fires of both the moralists and the health professionals: they are objective, simple measures of behaviour or behavioural outcomes. In the USA, the alarmingly high teenage pregnancy rate was the rationale for introducing federally-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs, which required that young people must be taught that “sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects”.

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About the Author

Dr Melissa Kang is a specialist in adolescent medicine at Sydney's New Children's Hospital and a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

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