Christianity and the Age of Consent

Tiberius was a sick sick dude...

Historically, in most cultures, there was no age of consent when it came to sex. For example, in Ancient Rome it was considered perfectly normal for adult men to use slaves and prostitutes of all ages for their own sexual gratification. The only real taboo would be for the powerful male to allow himself to be violated anally. Other than that, powerful men did what they wanted. Historian Tom Holland gives one horrific example in his excellent ""Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar." Emperor Tiberius, he writes, "trained young boys to lick his testicles while swimming." Pretty sick stuff. But not unique within ancient Rome. Or, for that matter, in very many ancient cultures. Elsewhere Holland writes about ancient Greece,

"Pederasty was widely practiced elsewhere in Greece but only in Sparta was it institutionalized - even it is said, with fines for boys who refused to take a lover......Yet, traumatic though the experience of submitting must have been for most young Spartans, there were, for boys at least, some significant compensations. Not only was it acceptable for a lover to serve his young boyfriend as a patron; it was positively expected. The more honored a citizen, and the better connected, the more effectively he could further his beloved's career. Elite would advance elite: so it was that a boy, yielding to the nocturnal thrustings of a battle-scarred older man, might well find the secret wellsprings of Spartan power opened up to him."

Okay... again... just puked a bit reading that again. Sick stuff. But read how normal it was to the Greeks. It was only unique in Sparta because it was "institutionalized" but it was "widely practiced elsewhere."  Most cultures for most of history did not have an age of consent and few had any real taboos around sex with prepubescent children.

So... what changed? Why did humans go from widely accepting adults having sex with children to viewing it as possibly the worst crime of all?

The answer is Christianity.

In ancient Rome, sex was not viewed as much of a moral question (for men at least). It was viewed more like going to the bathroom. You didn't talk about it. If you got too weird or obsessed with it you might get laughed at or thought weak. But it didn't have the moral weight to it that sex has today. This changed dramatically as Christianity spread throughout the Empire. In Christianity, the sexual ethic is one of the central teachings of the religion. And Christianity had strict rules around sex. While Roman men could have sex with pretty much anyone without violating moral taboos, a Christian man could only have sex with one person.... his wife (and a Christian woman only with her husband). Christians were expected to wait to have sex until they were married and then were expected to stay married for the rest of their life. In many ways, this was the creation of what we call the nuclear family.

But, Christians were not naive, they knew that temptations were out there and that some men and women would commit adultery, practice homosexuality, or have pre-marital sex. These people were said to be committing a great sin. This sin would put one in bad standing with God. A person who lived in this way without repenting could not be saved from hell. As St. Paul put it in 1 Cor 6:9b-10,

"Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites...will inherit the kingdom of God."

And for Christians, extra-marital sex was not just bad, it had a defiling effect on our soul. Again from St Paul (1 Cor 6:18-19),

"Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies."

For a Christian, having sex outside of marriage could defile your body, defile the temple of the Holy Spirit, and literally send you to hell.

But... some Christians thought, what about when the sex is not exactly consensual? What about sexual slavery (common in the day)? Christians called this 'forced sin' and sought to outlaw it. Nancy Pearcy, quoting a historian's analysis of the spread of Christianity notes that, "The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery." In other words, we can track the spread of Christianity based on whether sexual slavery was legal or not.

And when it came to kids, who clearly cannot resist physically, cannot choose mentally, and who have not reached any sort of age of reason, Christians noted that this too was shameful and should be deemed a horrific assault. Something that was quite normal for ancient Rome, suddenly became one of the most horrific things. 
The history of the law developing is very hard to reconstruct over time but most traditional societies set the age for marriage to be around puberty and since Christians now prohibited sexual slavery and premarital sex, puberty because the standard for both marriage and sex became post puberty events. 

[Note: it is important to note that throughout the middle ages marriages were often arranged and related to both property and estates. Sometimes ceremonies would be done very early (with some as young as toddlers being married) this was not the norm and it was presumed that these marriages would not be consummated until post puberty. See Gratian.]
Now, when I have said this to people, they often scoff and respond with something like, 'Christians have plenty of pedo problems... what about the pedophile priests?" But this is sort of a ridiculous counter. Any time you put a law to protect people in place, you are going to get people violating that law.... it doesn't mean the law should not be there or that sometimes the very people who were supposed to enforce the law won't hypocritically violate it. Priests don't abuse more than teachers or athletic coaches (much less actually) but they are being more hypocritical because the religion they claim to teach is the whole reason we prohibit the action in the first place. So, far from undermining the good that Christianity brought to the world on the age of consent question, pedophilia by priests emphasizes how important the teaching is. The church understands this and since the recent spate of scandals has dramatically increased protections for children in the church.

Another response to this is to note that at various points in Christian history, quite young marriages have been allowed. In some cases, daughters just past puberty were given in marriage to men in their 20s or older. Unlike priest abuse, these teen marriages have often been authorized and celebrated by the church. Isn't this a form of pedophilia? Is the church really much better? 

And the answer, again, is that this is a ridiculous argument. First, it is worth noting that pedophilia as defined by the dictionary involves sex with prepubescent children. A girl in her mid teens is at quite a different level of mental and physical development from a 5 or 6 year old. You could argue that it is still too young but you have to admit that it is almost infinitely better.  Second, can anyone argue that the Christian model that involved parental permission and a lifelong commitment of marriage from the man was a bit less prone to abuse than our current sexual laws that allow unlimited legal sex once a person hits the age of consent (that is many states and countries is 16 years old)? Third, it should be noted that teen marriages were less common throughout Christian history than one might think. Going back to the 19th century, the average age for someone's first marriage was in the 20s for both men and women. So teen weddings (particularly early teens), far from being this norm that many imagine when thinking of old Christian societies, were more of an exception. This is probably because with parental involvement, teens are prevented from making dumb decisions before they are ready.

But regardless, can we not see how much better Christianity made the world for kids? Christianity entered a world that was full of pedophilia, pederasty, and sexual slavery. We transformed this world into to a place where people had to reach an age (and the right age can be debated) where someone is physically and mentally ready to make the decision whether or not to have sex. 

This is a giant leap forward for humanity. And you can thank the Christian moral ethic for it.


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