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Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons initially set the minimum age at 10–12 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.

In most cases, this coincided with signs of puberty, menstruation for a woman and pubic hair for a man.

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The phrase "within age" was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.

Sir Edward Coke (England, 17th century) "made it clear that the marriage of girls under 12 was normal, and the age at which a girl who was a wife was eligible for a dower from her husband's estate was 9 even though her husband be only four years old." In the 16th century, a small number of Italian and German states set the minimum age for sexual intercourse for girls, setting it at 12 years.

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.

While ages from 10 to 13 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 16.

The English common law had traditionally set the age of consent within the range of 10 to 12, but in 1875 the age was raised to 13.

There were authorities that said that consent could take place earlier.

Marriage would then be valid as long as neither of the two parties annulled the marital agreement before reaching puberty, or if they had already consummated the marriage.

The term age of consent rarely appears in legal statutes.

Generally, a law will instead establish the age below which it is illegal to engage in sexual activity with that person.

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.

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