A Brief History of the Age of Consent by Lloyd Lofthouse

Posted by on Sep 3, 2012 in China, Featured Book, Historical Research | 3 comments

An honest 21st century review of The Concubine Saga (combined edition of My Splendid Concubine and Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine at ColReads.com brought up a good subject for a post—the history of the changing attitudes of when a girl becomes a woman (You may want to click on the link to ColReads and read the entire review).

ColReads said, “The girls were younger than 15, for goodness sake. I had a hard time getting past that,” which is understandable when we take into account that in 21st century America the law makes a girl/woman a child until age 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18 depending on which U.S. state you live in (watch the video to discover the age of consent in each U.S. state).

However, the age of consent laws in the middle of the 19th century (the time period of The Concubine Saga, which is based on a real story) were not the same as they are today.

To understand the difference between now and then, today in the People’s Republic of China the age of consent for sexual activity is 14, regardless of gender and/or sexual orientation. In Hong Kong, it is 16 and in Macau 18.

However, “Depictions of ‘child-romance’ in ancient or modern Chinese literature are not difficult to find. They include passages on joyous heterosexual or homosexual activities by children as young as 12 to13 years old with one another or with adults. Children are usually described as natural sexual beings and erotic stimulation and sex-play are seen as beneficial to their healthy development (Chen 2000).” In fact, “For most of Chinese history, the minimum marriage age suggested by the government had ranged between 12 and 16.” Source: Department of Psychiatry, University of Hong Kong

For a comparison, in 1875 in the UK, a concern that young girls were being sold into brothels let Parliament change the age of consent to 13. Prior to that, the age of consent was 12.

However, in the United States in 1875, each state determined its own criminal law and the age of consent ranged from 10 to 12 years of age. It would not be until after the 1930s that the term “jail bait” came into use in America as the age of consent laws changed.

I could have sanitized The Concubine Saga and made both Ayaou and her sister Shao-mei much older to fit the attitudes of today but then that would have been historically incorrect. Sterling Seagrave in his book Dragon Lady, the Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, wrote, “He (Robert Hart) had just turned twenty. Ayaou was barely past puberty but was wise beyond her years.”

If Ayaou was barely 14, then there was only a six-year age gap between the two, while Hart’s arranged marriage to a young Irish woman named Hester Jane Bredon a decade later sees the gap double to twelve years when he was thirty and she was eighteen. In fact, Seagrave says, “He (Hart) sought a wife as straightforwardly as he had bought a concubine.” After returning to Ireland for a brief stay in 1866, Robert proposed marriage to Hester five days after he met her. The courtship lasted three months before they were married.

Should authors ignore historical fact and rewrite history to reflect the moral sensitivities of today’s readers?

Lloyd Lofthouse, September 3, 2012

This post first appeared on June 15, 2012 at Lloyd Lofthouse.org


  1. Excellent post, Lloyd! I struggle with some of this myself in my series set during the American Revolution. Some readers want to impose 21st-century values when it comes to characters’ religious inclinations, sexuality, and even legitimacy. I understand that some of this stuff makes people uncomfortable, but if I knuckle under, I’m not depicting history accurately, and I’m depriving my target audience from the opportunity to learn from history.

    So I tell it like it is. Then I include a solid end-note about the issue in my Afterword. If a reader complains about it, s/he isn’t the target audience for the book. Rewriting history to reflect current moral sensitivities won’t change that.

  2. Nice post, Lloyd. It strikes me that my favorite historical novels have all told the past like it was, not as modern readers would wish it were.

  3. Thank you.
    I agree, if a reader complains/offended about historical accuracy in a novel because it offended his or her 21 century beliefs and moral sensitivities, then accurate historical fiction is not for that person. Instead, maybe he or she should focus on historical-formula romance fiction that takes liberties with history when it comes to sensitive areas that might offend modern readers. I’m sure Harlequin Romance had an imprint that does that.

    I read once that Harlequin has several choices for readers spanning those that want it as real as possible to those that want the ideal, stereotypical, sanitized version (in other words, a fantasy)—my mother was one of those people. She loved reading romances but if there was a sex scene in the book, she tossed it in the fireplace and burned it.

    In fact, I wrote a post that touches on the topic of authors finding readers for his or her work that shows the challenge authors face finding readers that are that target audience.