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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

In Context: Sex Trafficking and the Age of Consent

When I wrote about sex trafficking earlier, I mentioned an article that Thalia Potter, legislative aide to Senator Pat Frank, showed me while I was lobbying for reform of rape law back in the 1980s. In the satirical piece, the author substituted “sex” or “rape” for “robbery” or “theft.” The analogy went along the lines of saying to a man: “But with your fancy watch and new sports car, you were making it clear that you are rich; you should have expected to be robbed.”

Many people held that attitude on rape. If an attractive woman was without male escort, a red-blooded man could be excused for making advances, and perhaps, if rejected, even taking violent advantage. Feminists had to work for decades to get the public and law enforcement to see that rape victims should not be blamed for that crime, but I think we are there now. Partly that is because women have risen to command positions in law enforcement: when Orlando has a black woman as police chief and Tampa has a lesbian at the top of its ranks, the “boys will be boys” excuse becomes harder.

But even with more enlightened law enforcement, sex trafficking continues apace -- just as it has since the beginning of human history. Fathers are less likely to openly sell their daughters than they were in the days of the Old Testament’s Rachel and Leah, but what is essentially a sale still happens in Third World nations. If sold to a husband, of course, this is perfectly legal and defined as a “bride price.” In such cultures, rape is a crime not so much because of the hurt to the victim, but because of the harm done to her value as merchandise.

In First World nations, the sale of sex is presumed to be consensual and therefore not rape – but that seldom is truly the case. Just as in earlier times, a pimp (or less often, a madam) usually forces the sex worker into her trade – or if initially seduced, she stays there by force. Nor does she get to keep the money traded in the transaction, as her life becomes one of genuine slavery.

Widespread drug addiction makes such exploitation easier, but a woman or girl who tries to leave the life soon finds that the narcotic habit is not all that she has to break – she also has to break the business bonds that tie her. She can expect to be starved and beaten and tortured until her nascent will is broken, and the pimp makes her an example for other potential rebels.

The chief reason why she has no resources or allies, of course, is that she usually is very young. Most are runaways – girls who have fled an untenable home situation. Often the victims of incest, they have grown up believing that their bodies, not their minds, are their best economic asset. Almost always, no one has instilled any self-respect; instead, they are long accustomed to hearing themselves called “slut” or “whore.” It should be no surprise if they become such.

Nor is this new. Prostitution always has been with us, and as I said in the earlier article, at higher rates in the past than today. What I didn’t say then and would like to add now is that in the America of a century ago, state laws encouraged such exploitation.

* * *

Laws, of course, were made entirely by men until the first women were elected to a legislature. That was in Colorado in 1894, but other states were slow to follow, and there was no significant number of female legislators until 1922, the first election in which all American women could vote. Even then, the numbers rose very slowly.

Lawmaking bodies composed entirely of men seldom addressed issues related to women, especially if those issues involved sexuality. Although every state had to have laws under which rape could be prosecuted, discussion of sex crimes often was used as an argument against women’s involvement in “dirty” politics. Rape cases made an especially good excuse for excluding women from juries, something that didn’t end until the 1960s.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, some women defied decorum and forced legislators to deal with the “age of consent.” Also called “age of protection,” this is the minimum age at which a person is considered legally competent to consent to sex. Until the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU) led reform, that age was shamefully low. In Delaware, for example, until 1895, a “woman” could give her consent to sex at age seven!

In Georgia in 1899, a bill to raise the age from ten to twelve was defeated. In several states that did raise the age, legislators nonetheless added clauses spelling out to future (all-male) juries that they could not convict a man merely on the testimony of the victim. Even in New York, where women lobbied strongly for reform, the legal age of consent in 1900 remained at just ten.

The WCTU was more successful in other states, as it conducted a well-organized lobbying campaign during the 1880s and 1890s. I’ll not replicate the table of dates and laws that I developed for my Women in American Politics, which was published by Congressional Quarterly Press last year – but if you want details, please feel free to buy the book online.

Here’s a quick summary, though, of the status of women by the age of consent in 1900. (The numbers will not add to fifty because Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states; the Dakota Territory was treated as one entity; and California did not report.)

Just two states put the age of consent at 18 – Kansas, where no campaign was needed because it long had been that age, and Delaware, which leaped there from age seven. In eleven states, it was sixteen. This included Florida, as our legislature raised the age of consent in 1900 from a previous age ten.

Montana raised the age from ten to fifteen, but the greatest number of states – 19 – put the age of consent at fourteen. Fifteen of those nineteen moved there from age ten, which had been the common definition during the so-called Victorian Age. The other four states that raised the age to fourteen took less of a leap; they moved up just two years, from age twelve.

In four states, a “woman” could give her consent to sex in her first teenage year, at thirteen. Despite stereotypes, these were not in the South: instead, they were states settled by highly religious people: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Iowa.

Twelve was the age of consent in the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as in Nebraska, Ohio, and Utah. Given health conditions at the time, most girls probably had not yet had their first menses when they legally could give consent for sex – and a man could argue in court that he had not raped a twelve year old.

Finally, the WCTU’s campaign met no success at all in four legislatures. In Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and allegedly progressive New York, the age remained just ten – or a mere decade from birth to legal sexual activity!

So don’t let anyone tell you that exploitation of girls is a new phenomenon or that it occurs only in impoverished nations. America has a long and not-so-proud history of patriarchy, in which the girl child has the lowest status. The men who passed these laws doubtless used the rhetoric of chivalry and family values, but their actions spoke louder than words. They still do.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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