In criminal law, the age of consent is the age at which a person is considered to be capable of legally giving informed consent to sexual acts with another person. Thus somebody engaging in sex with someone below the age of consent commits a crime, called child sexual abuse. Under many jurisdictions, this is regardless of his or her own age, but in some locations, if the age difference is within a certain range, a less serious (or no) crime occurs.
The age of consent should not be confused with the age of majority or age of criminal responsibility, and in some jurisdictions, the marriageable age differs from the age of consent.
The age of consent varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, though most jurisdictions in the world today have an age of consent between 14 to 18 years, but ages as young as 12 and as old as 21 also occur.
Social and legal attitudes
Social and legal attitudes towards the appropriate age of consent have drifted upwards in modern times; while ages from ten through to thirteen were typically acceptable in the mid 19th century, fifteen through eighteen had become the norm in many countries by the end of the 20th century. Calls for the age of consent for heterosexual sex to be lowered are largely unheard of outside of US, with an age of 17 or 18.
Sexual relations with a person under the age of consent is in general a criminal offence, with punishments ranging from token fines to life imprisonment. In the United States this offence is frequently called statutory rape, though outside the United States other names are more commonly used (e.g. "carnal knowledge of a person under sixteen years").
Increasingly the age of consent laws of a state apply not only to acts committed on its own territory, but also acts committed by its nationals and/or inhabitants on foreign territory:
- In the United States the PROTECT Act (signed into law on April 30, 2003) authorizes fines and/or imprisonment for up to 30 years for US citizens or residents who engage in illicit sexual conduct abroad. For the purposes of this law illicit sexual conduct includes commercial sex with anyone under 18, and all sex with anyone under 16. Previous US law was less strict, only punishing those having sex either in contravention of local laws OR in commerce (prostitution); but did not prohibit non-commercial sex with, say, a 14 year-old if such sex is legal in the foreign territory.
- France allows the prosecution of its own citizens on rape charges for sex with minors under 15 abroad even if it was legal with respect to the local jurisdiction. The same applies to Germany if the minor is under 14.
- For inhabitants of the Netherlands it is a severe crime to have sex with a prostitute below 18, or any person below 16, anywhere in the world.
- if a foreigner has had sex with a prostitute below 18, or any person below 16, anywhere in the world, even if this was legal, if this was done at a time that it was already illegal in the Netherlands, he or she becomes a criminal when immigrating to the Netherlands.
(See also Universal jurisdiction; the effective age of consent may be the highest of those corresponding to the list in Universal jurisdiction#Applicable jurisdictions.)
Such provisions have been frequently adopted to help reduce the incidence of child sex tourism.
The enforcement practices of age of consent laws tend to vary depending on the social sensibilities of the particular culture. 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 authority over the minor (e.g. a teacher, priest or doctor). The sex of each participant also influences perceptions of an individual's guilt and therefore enforcement. Not only is enforcement more likely in the case of a larger age gap, but in the US at least, laws are becoming more explicit about prohibiting sex between youngsters and authority figures, even when sex would otherwise be legal.
That the relationship was consensual is not in general a defence to having sexual relations with a person under the age of consent; however, there are some defences: common examples include a limited mistake of age defence, and a defence of similarity of age. A mistake of age defence is that the accused mistakenly believed the victim was not under the age of consent; however, where such a defence is provided, it is normally limited to apply only when the victim is above a certain age. Such a defence becomes stronger if the accused can show due diligence in determining the age of the victim.
A defence of similarity of age is that the difference in age between the accused and the victim was fewer than a certain number of years.
Another defence is often marriage, for those jurisdictions where the marriageable age is less than the age of consent.
Other legal aspects
- Legally, relationships between adults and adolescents do not necessarily include sex. Most of them involve sexual attraction. Just dating a teenager below the age of consent is legal in some jurisdictions, especially when the adolescent's age is above the marriageable age. In other jurisdictions, this may be illegal.
Age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual sex
Frequently, jurisdictions provide differing ages of consent for heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. Most often, the age of consent for heterosexual and female homosexual intercourse is lower than the age of consent for male homosexual intercourse. The gay rights movement has been attempting in many places to establish an equal age of consent regardless of the sex of the partners; this has resulted in many jurisdictions adopting a common age of consent, though conservatives have frequently and successfully opposed this (see Sodomy law).
Ages of consent in various countries
The following list of ages of consent in various countries is based on the list given on the web-site linked at the bottom of this page.
In this list, gay is meant to include only male-male sex, while homosexual includes both gay and lesbian. The ages of consent given here are generally for a partner of any age, so an age of 14 means that a 14 year old can legally have sex with a 60 year old. It is not uncommon for there to be exceptions giving lower ages of consent where young partners are close in age.
- Albania: 14
- Algeria: 16; same sex relationships are illegal
- Andorra: 16
- Antigua: 16; 18 for homosexual males
- Argentina: 15; though can be 12 in certain cases
- Austria: 14 (as of August 13, 2002)
- Belgium: 16
- 14 and older only prosecutable after complaint by minor or parents;
- 12-13 only prosecutable after complaint by parents, with stronger penalties (except for poor families that canīt afford a lawsuit : prosecutable by the State);
- in all cases above, lawsuit is dismissed if minor accepts marrying the accused
- Bulgaria: 14
- Canada: 14 (but 18 for anal sex in all provinces except Quebec); A 14 year old may have sex with another who is as young as 12.
- China: 14
- Chile: 14
- Croatia: 14 or 18
- Czech Republic: 15
- Denmark: 15; 18 for dependency relationships (teacher/student etc.).
- Finland: 16
- France: 15; however sex with a minor under 18 in a dependency relationship may be criminalized.
- 18 years in dependency relationships (teacher/student etc.)
- 16 years if the older partner is over 18 and coerces the younger partner into sex other than by physical means, or if the older partner pays the younger partner to have sex (prostitution)
- 16 years if the older partner is over 21 and exploits "lack of sexual self-determination" of the younger partner (only prosecuted after complaints or “public interest", in practice rarely prosecuted with little or no punishment)
- 14 years for all other sexual relationships
- Greece: 17 for sodomy, otherwise 14
- Hong Kong: gay 21 (and both the older AND younger partners can be prosecuted and liable to imprisonment for life), lesbian unknown, heterosexual females 16, heterosexual males 18
- Since the 2002 decision of the Constitutional Court 14 for both heterosexual and homosexual relationships
- Iceland: 14
- India: heterosexual 16, homosexual illegal
- Indonesia: 17
- Iran: extramarital sex is illegal (see: Marriageable age)
- Ireland, Republic of: 17, 15 for lesbians and oral sex.
- Israel: 14, but under 18 legal if age difference is no more than 2 years.
- Italy: 14
- Japan: 13 nationwide, 16 to 18 in most prefectures; however, age of marriage for a female with parental approval is 16.
- Kazakhstan: 18
- Latvia: 16
- Lithuania: 14, for homosexual males, as of 2004, source LifeSiteNews.com
- 18, but Muslims must also be married
- homosexual sex is illegal
- Mexico: 12, but 18 under some circumstances
- Netherlands: 16 (18 if dependent relationship or prostitution)
- New Zealand: 16 (18 if prostitution, or some forms of dependent relationship)
- Norway: 16
- Peru: 12
- Poland: 15
- Portugal: heterosexual 14, homosexual 16
- Puerto Rico: 14
- Romania: 15
- Russia: either 14 or 16
- Saudi Arabia: heterosexual must be married, homosexual illegal
- heterosexual sex outside marriage is punishable by flogging
- male and female homosexual sex is illegal by virtue of being outside marriage
- homosexual sex is technically punishable by death
- See: Human rights in Saudi Arabia
- sex with a girl aged under 14 is considered statutory rape
- sex with a girl aged under 16 is considered an offense of "carnal intercourse with an underage female" (less severe than rape but still a punishable offense)
- homosexual sex is illegal
- Slovakia: 15
- Slovenia: 15
- South Africa: homosexual 19, heterosexual 16
- South Korea: 13
- Spain: 13
- Sweden: 15
- Switzerland: 16, under 16 legal if age difference is no more than 3 years
- Thailand: 15
- United Kingdom: (see  and , a 2003 overhaul of hundred-year-old laws on sexual activity which came into force in 2003)
- 18 years for any sexual act if there is a relationship of trust (e.g. teacher/pupil) (unless they are a married couple, in which case the below applies)
- England and Wales: heterosexual and male and female homosexual 16
- Scotland: heterosexual and male homosexual 16
- Northern Ireland: heterosexual and male homosexual 17
- Until 2003, there was no specific law for lesbians, though in England and Wales this has now been set at 16 years old. Although no such legislation exists for Scotland and Northern Ireland, a female under 16 is deemed incapable of consenting to any type of sexual behaviour which could be classed as sexual assault and the courts have taken this to mean that the age of consent is the same as for male homosexual acts.
- Jersey: 16 (18 homosexual)
(Before 2001 the homosexual age of consent in England and Wales was 18, and before the early 1990s it was 21, the age it was set at when consensual buggery was decriminalised)
United States of America
- United States: varies from state to state, usually between 16 and 18; some states formerly forbade homosexual acts entirely, however such laws have been declared unconstitutional in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas). Federal law forbids crossing state lines or international borders with the intent of having commercial sex with a person who is under 18, or any sex with a person who is under 16 and at least 4 years younger than the perpetrator (18 U.S.C. 2243, 18 U.S.C. 2423). In the US it is illegal to produce pornography featuring those under 18 and prosecutions have been commenced for cases where both partners are over the age of consent and under 18 years old, where they were making material solely for their own consumption or that of their lawful partner. The constitutionality of these cases is uncertain.