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It has sometimes been used with other meanings, such as the age at which a person becomes competent to consent to marriage, but the meaning given above is the one now generally understood.It should not be confused with other laws regarding age minimums including, but not limited to, the age of majority, age of criminal responsibility, voting age, drinking age, and driving age.These factors all make age of consent an often confusing subject, and a topic of highly charged debates.
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A general shift in social and legal attitudes toward issues of sex occurred during the modern era.
Attitudes on the appropriate age of permission for females to engage in sexual activity drifted toward adulthood.
Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons initially set the minimum age at ten to twelve years.
Age of consent laws were, historically, difficult to follow and enforce: legal norms based on age were not, in general, common until the 19th century, because clear proof of exact age and precise date of birth were often unavailable.
While ages from ten to thirteen years were typically regarded as acceptable ages for sexual consent in Western countries during the mid-19th century, Several articles written by investigative journalist William Thomas Stead in the late 19th century on the issue of child prostitution in London led to public outrage and ultimately to the raising of the age of consent to sixteen.
English common law had traditionally set the age of consent within the range of ten to twelve years old, but the Offences Against the Person Act 1875 raised this to thirteen in Great Britain and Ireland.
Early feminists of the Social Purity movement, such as Josephine Butler and others, instrumental in securing the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, began to turn towards the problem of child prostitution by the end of the 1870s.
Sensational media revelations about the scourge of child prostitution in London in the 1880s then caused outrage among the respectable middle-classes, leading to pressure for the age of consent to be raised again.
Charges and penalties resulting from a breach of these laws may range from a misdemeanor, such as corruption of a minor, to what is popularly called statutory rape.