Child Molestation Laws
From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
American laws fixing the minimum age of legal consent for sexual activity vary greatly from state to state and range from eleven to eighteen years of age; in Delaware in the 1950s children as young as seven were considered legally able to consent to sex. Furthermore, the legal definitions of the acts constituting child molestation vary widely: a nineteen-year-old male having sex with a seventeen-year-old female is committing a crime in some states but not in others.
The “age of consent” has varied throughout history. In thirteenth-century England, for example, the age below which it was prohibited for females to have intercourse was twelve. This was lowered to ten in the sixteenth century, and remained that for about three hundred years. At that time the minimum age was progressively raised until in 1879 it settled at the current age of sixteen. (For a fifty year period, until 1929, the age at which a female could marry was 12, four years younger than the age of consent for intercourse.)
Some argue that laws setting a minimum age of consent should be abolished altogether. These include pedophiles, who have their own agenda, but also those who believe that there should be prosecution only in cases of force or pressure, in which case there already are laws prohibiting such activity. Nevertheless, the vast majority of experts, both legal and psychological, concur with the concept of protecting children from having sex with adults.
Child molestation can be broken down into two different sorts: that involving members of the same family, called incest, and that between strangers. Incest has been acceptable in some cultures, including that of the ancient Egyptians (witness Cleopatra’s marriage to her brother). Because the permanent breakup of a family, even an incestuous family, might cause more harm to a child than other means of handling such cases, courts have used various methods to deal with incest, including relatively short prison sentences and family therapy.
Today child abuse is recognized as a growing problem—either because it is on the increase or because more people are now willing to admit that they have been abused—and state governments have taken steps to protect children suspected of being victims. Anyone in an official capacity, such as a teacher or physician, who comes in contact with a child whom they suspect has been abused in some way, is mandated by law to report such suspicions. However, because of concerns about breaking up families, it is estimated that many incidents are not yet reported.
Another difficulty with enforcing laws against child abuse is that often the only witness is the child, so that proving a case can be difficult. Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, a criminal defendant has the right to confront an adversarial witness. Though the Supreme Court has ruled that a child of any age can be considered a competent witness, the courts have also tried to shield children from the trauma of cross-examination in a courtroom by allowing their testimony to be videotaped beforehand, although in some cases such evidence has been ruled a violation of the defendant’s rights. It has also been shown that children can be manipulated into saying that abuse occurred in order to please the person asking the question, and some cases have been rejected by juries that refused to find the children’s testimony credible.