Age of consent
|Sex and the law|
(May vary according to jurisdiction)
Adultery · Buggery · Child grooming
|Sexuality · Criminal justice · Law|
While the phrase age of consent rarely appears in legal statutes, when used in relation to sexual activity, the age of consent is the minimum age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts. It should not be confused with the age of majority, age of criminal responsibility, the marriageable age, the voting age, the drinking age, driving age, or other purposes. Laws vary widely, and while most jurisdictions set the age of consent in the range 14 to 18, ages of consent as low as 12 and as high as 21 exist.
The age of consent varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The relevant age may also vary by the type of sexual act, the gender of the actors, or other restrictions such as abuse of a position of trust. Some jurisdictions may also make allowances for minors engaged in sexual acts with each other, rather than a single age. Charges 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 (which is considered equivalent to rape, both in severity and sentencing).
There are many "gray areas" in this area of law, some regarding unspecific and untried legislation, others brought about by debates regarding changing societal attitudes, and others due to conflicts between federal and state laws. These factors all make age of consent an often confusing subject, and a topic of highly charged debates.
Traditionally, across the globe, the age of consent for a sexual union was a matter for the family to decide, or a tribal custom. In most cases, this coincided with signs of puberty, menstruation for a woman and pubic hair for a man.
Hesiod in "Works and Days" (circa 700BC) suggests that a man should marry around the age of thirty, and that he should take a wife who is five years past puberty. In Ancient Rome, it was very common for girls to marry and have children shortly after the onset of puberty.
The first recorded age-of-consent law dates back 800 years: In 1275, in England, as part of the rape law, a statute, Westminster 1, made it a misdemeanor to "ravish" a "maiden within age," whether with or without her consent. The phrase "within age" was interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage, which at the time was 12 years of age.
In the 12th century Gratian, the influential founder of Canon law in medieval Europe, accepted age of puberty for marriage to be between 12 and 14 but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if the children were older than 7. 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. It should be noted that Judges honored marriages based on mutual consent at ages younger than 7, in spite of what Gratian had said; there are recorded marriages of 2 and 3 year olds.
The American colonies followed the English tradition, and the law was more of a guide. For example, Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams. 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."
Reliable data for when people would actually marry is very difficult to find. In England for example, the only reliable data on age at marriage in the early modern period comes from records involving only those who left property after their death. Not only were the records relatively rare, but not all bothered to record the participants' ages, and it seemed that the more complete the records are, the more likely they are to reveal young marriages. Additionally, 20th and 21st centuries' historians have sometimes shown reluctance to accept data regarding young ages of marriage, and would instead explain the data away as a misreading by a later copier of the records.
A small number of Italian and German states introduced an age of consent in the 16th century, setting it at 12 years. Towards the end of the 18th century, other European countries also began to enact age of consent laws. The first French Constitution established an age of consent of 11 years in 1791, which was raised to 13 in 1863. Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Swiss cantons, initially set the age of consent at 10–12 years and then raised it to between 13 and 16 years in the second half of the 19th century. Historically, the English common law set the age of consent to range from 10 to 12.
In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at 10–12, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only 7. A New York Times article states that it was still aged 7 in Delaware in 1895. Female reformers and advocates of social purity initiated a campaign in 1885 to petition legislators to raise the legal age of consent to at least 16, with the ultimate goal to raise the age to 18. The campaign was successful, with almost all states raising the age of consent to 16–18 by 1920.
Social (and the resulting legal) attitudes toward the appropriate age of consent have drifted upwards in modern times. For example, while ages from 10 to 13 were typically acceptable in Western countries during the mid-19th century, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were marked by changing attitudes towards sexuality and childhood resulting in raising the ages of consent to around 16.
Sexual relations with a person under the age of consent is a criminal offense in most countries. Many different terms exist for the charges laid and can include child sexual abuse, statutory rape, illegal carnal knowledge, and corruption of a minor.
The enforcement practices of age-of-consent laws vary depending on the social sensibilities of the particular culture (see above). Often, enforcement is not exercised to the letter of the law, with legal action being taken only when a sufficiently socially-unacceptable age gap exists between the two individuals, or if the perpetrator is in a position of power over the minor (e.g., a teacher, minister, or doctor). The sex of each participant can also influence perceptions of an individual's guilt and therefore enforcement.
The concept of what actually makes up an age of consent differs between jurisdictions. Common examples include:
- Fixed age of consent
- In most jurisdictions, the age of consent is actually a specified fixed age, such as in all of the United Kingdom, where it is 16.
- Onset of puberty as the age of consent
- In some jurisdictions, there is no fixed age of consent. Instead, sex is allowed with people who are pubescent or post pubescent. Such jurisdictions include Yemen, but only in marriage, and the states of Nayarit and Querétaro (in Mexico) and Bolivia. This was also the case of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and other Soviet republics during the Soviet era.
- Marriageable age
- Not all countries have an age of consent, but a number of those jurisdictions (including Kuwait) make all sexual intercourse outside of marriage illegal.
Defenses and exceptions 
The age of consent is a legal barrier to the minor ability to consent and therefore obtaining consent is not in general a defense to having sexual relations with a person under the prescribed age. Common examples:
- Reasonably believing that the victim is over the age of consent
- In some jurisdictions, (such as England and Wales), it is a defense if the accused can show that he or she reasonably believed the victim was over the age of consent. However, where such a defense is provided, it normally applies only when the victim is close to the age of consent or the accused can show due diligence in determining the age of the victim (e.g. a 15-year-old who used a fake identification document claiming to be 18 or older).
- In some jurisdictions, including Brunei it is an exception to age of consent laws if the accused can show that he or she is legally married to the other person.
- Close-in-age exemptions
- Some jurisdictions have laws explicitly allowing minors under the age of consent to engage in sexual acts with partners who are close to their age by enacting legal close in age exemptions: for instance in Canada the age of consent is 16, but there are two close-in-age exemptions: minors 14–15 may have sex with a partner who is less than five years older, and minors aged 12–13 may have sex with a partner who is less than two years older. These different defenses can change dramatically from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even between neighboring states of the same union with the same age of consent. Other countries state that the sexual conduct with the minor is not to be punished if the partners are of a similar age and development: for instance the age of consent in Finland is 16, but the law states that the act will not be punished if "there is no great difference in the ages or the mental and physical maturity of the persons involved".
- Homosexual and heterosexual age discrepancies
- Some jurisdictions, such as The Bahamas, Bermuda, Chile, Greece, Paraguay and Suriname –have a higher age of consent for homosexual intercourse. In the United Kingdom for example the age of consent was originally 21 for homosexual behavior, while it was 16 for heterosexual behavior. However, such discrepancies are increasingly being challenged. In both Canada and the Australian state of Queensland, the age of consent for anal sex is officially higher at 18 years, compared with 16 years for vaginal and oral sex. In the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, this discrepancy has been declared unconstitutional by courts.
- Gender-age differentials
- In some jurisdictions (such as Indonesia), there are different ages of consent for heterosexual sexual activity that are based on the gender of each person. In countries where there are gender-age differentials, the age of consent may be higher for girls—for example in Papua New Guinea, where the age of consent for heterosexual sex is 16 for girls and 14 for boys, or they may be higher for males, such as in Indonesia, where males must be 19 years old and females must be 16 years old. There are also numerous jurisdictions—such as Kuwait and Palestine—in which marriage laws govern the gender-age differential. In these jurisdictions, it is illegal to have sexual intercourse outside of marriage so the de facto age of consent is the marriageable age. In Kuwait, this means that boys must be at least 17 and girls at least 15 years old.
- Maximum age of adult
- A less frequent criterion is that sexual intercourse between a minor and an adult is legal under the condition that the latter does not exceed a certain age. Thus the age of consent in Delaware is 18, but it is allowed for teenagers aged 16 and 17 to engage in sexual intercourse as long as the older partner is younger than 30.
- Position of authority/trust
- In most jurisdictions where the age of consent is below 18 (such as England and Wales), in cases where a person aged 18 or older is in a position of trust over a person under 18 the age of consent usually rises to 18, or higher. Examples of such positions of trust include relationships between teachers and students. For example, in England and Wales the age of consent is 16, but if the person is a student of the older person it becomes 18.
Increasingly the age of consent laws of a state are applied not only to acts committed in the state's own territory, but also to those committed by the state's citizens or inhabitants while they are on foreign soil. An example is the United States, which has passed a Federal age of consent law banning sexual activity by US citizens with foreigners or with other US citizens who are from another one of the States, if any of the partners is under 18. This applies in cases where any of the partners travels into or out of the United States, or from one State into another one, for the purpose of a sexual encounter. The United States also applies this law in cases where the age of consent is lower than the age of both partners in both the states or countries involved.
Other concerns 
The age at which a person can be legally married can also differ from the age of consent. In jurisdictions where the marriageable age is lower than the age of consent, those laws usually override the age of consent laws in the case of a married couple where one or both partners are below the age of consent. Further still, some jurisdictions prohibit any sex outside of marriage, which can take place at any age, as in the case of Yemen.
Variations also exist in some countries between the age of consent and the age at which an individual can appear in pornographic images and films. In many jurisdictions, the minimum age for legal participation and even viewing of such productions is 18. Films and images showing individuals under the age of 18 in applicable jurisdictions can be classified as child pornography, even though the legal age of consent in those same jurisdictions is lower than 18. For example in the United States under federal law it is a crime to film minors below 18 in sexual acts, even in states where the age of sexual consent is below 18. In those states of the USA where the age of consent is below 18, charges such as child porn are used as alternatives. For example Ross Frame, an Indiana police officer, had sex with a girl over 16 but under 18 in Indiana, where the age of consent is 16, but was prosecuted because he produced porn videos containing her.
In many countries there are specific laws against child prostitution.
Initiatives to change the age of consent 
Age-of-consent reform refers to the efforts of some individuals or groups, for different reasons, to alter or abolish age-of-consent laws. These efforts advocate five main positions:
- Introductions of close-in-age exceptions.
- A change in the way that age-of-consent laws are examined in court.
- Either increases in the ages of consent or more severe penalties or both.
- Either decreases in the ages of consent or less severe penalties or both.
- Abolition of the age-of-consent laws either permanently or as a temporary, practical expedient.
By country or region 
Specific jurisdictions' laws relating to age of consent can be found, organized by region, on the following pages:
- Ages of consent in Africa
- Ages of consent in Asia
- Ages of consent in Oceania
- Ages of consent in Europe
- Ages of consent in North America
- Ages of consent in South America
See also 
- Age of Consent Act, 1891 (British India)
- Adult film industry regulations
- Age disparity in sexual relationships
- Age of accountability
- Age of reason (canon law)
- Age of consent manifestations (UK)
- Child sexual abuse
- Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Emancipation of minors
- French petition against age of consent laws
- Minors and abortion
- Mature minor doctrine
- Sexual Morality and the Law
- Sodomy law
- The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, a Victorian expose of child prostitution
- Waites, Matthew (2005). The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-2173-3. OCLC 238887395 58604878.
- "Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society".
- Stephen Robertson, University of Sydney, Australia. "Children and Youth in History | Age of Consent Laws". Chnm.gmu.edu. Archived from the original on 27 June 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
- William Saletan (Sept. 27, 2007). "The Mind-Booty Problem : Rethinking the age of sexual consent". Slate.com.
- "PURITY CONGRESS MEETS; A Great Gathering for Moral Work in the City of Baltimore. AIMS AND OBJECTS OF THE MOVEMENT Determined to Prevent State Regulation of Vice and to Rescue Fallen Men and Fallen Women.". The New York Times (BALTIMORE, Oct. 14.). October 15, 1895.
- Stephen Robertson, University of Sydney, Australia (2007-11-29). "Children and Youth in History | Age of Consent Laws". Chnm.gmu.edu. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
- "Campaign to Raise the Legal Age of Consent, 1885–1914, Lesson Plan". Womhist.alexanderstreet.com. Archived from the original on 17 June 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
- "Sexual Offences Act 2003 (See Sections 9 to 12)" (PDF). Published by the Government of the United Kingdom, (Office of Public Sector Information).
- "Criminal Code of the RSFSR (1934), Articles 136-161". Cyberussr.com. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
- "Summary record of the 488th meeting : Kuwait". Committee on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved 2009-09-05.
- Larry W. Myers (1965). "Reasonable Mistake of Age: A Needed defense to Statutory Rape". Michigan Law Review (The Michigan Law Review Association) 64 (1): 105–136. – <105:RMOAAN>2.0.CO;2–D . doi:10.2307/1287118. JSTOR 1287118.
- "Legislation of Interpol member states on sexual offences against children – Brunei". Interpol. 2006.
- "Canada's age of consent raised by 2 years". CBC News. 2008-05-01. Archived from the original on 20 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-22.
- "FINLEX ® - Translations of Finnish acts and decrees: 39/1889 English". Finlex.fi. 2009-05-29. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
- The Causes and Cures of Criminality Eysenck, Hans 1989 Plenum Press New York page 229
- "159. ANAL INTERCOURSE". Efc.ca. Archived from the original on 23 March 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- "CRIMINAL CODE 1899 – SECT 208 208 Unlawful sodomy". Austlii.edu.au. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- "Mixed reviews to Tories' sexual consent bill – CTV News". Ctv.ca. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- "The State of the Play". Egale.ca. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
- "Sexual Offences Laws – Indonesia". Interpol. Retrieved 2009-09-05.
- "Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS: Existing Law of Papua New Guinea". Paclii.org. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
- "Palestinian Territories of West Bank and Gaza Strip – Marriage Age". Emory Law. Retrieved 2009-09-05.
- "TITLE 11, Crimes and Criminal Procedure, Delaware Criminal Code, CHAPTER 5. SPECIFIC OFFENSES, Subchapter II. Offenses Against the Person, Subpart A. Assaults and Related Offenses (see § 768 and § 770)". Delaware Code.
- "Sexual Offences Act 2003 (See Sections 16 to 24)" (PDF). Published by the Government of the United Kingdom, (Office of Public Sector Information).
- "Research on sex offender laws and their effects on people and society". SOL Research.org. 2009. Retrieved 2011-10-23.
- Brilliant, Jeremy (August 5, 2009). "New Castle detective resigns over child porn charges". wthr.com Eyewitness News (Henry County). Retrieved 25 May 2012.
- Further reading
- Brewer, Holly. By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, & the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority; Univ. of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, 2005) ISBN 978-0-8078-5832-5
- Waites, Matthew (2005) The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship, (New York [United States] and Houndmills, Basingstoke [United Kingdom]: Palgrave Macmillan) ISBN 1-4039-2173-3
- Legislation of Interpol member states on sexual offenses against children[dead link] (Some information may be out of date)
- Links to the relevant state laws for all 50 States and Washington DC[dead link]
- Avert.org list