Age of consent
While the phrase age of consent typically does not appear in legal statutes, when used with reference to criminal law the age of consent is the minimum age at which a person is considered to be capable of legally giving informed consent to any contract or behavior regulated by law with another person. This article refers specifically to those laws regulating sexual acts. This should not be confused with the age of majority, age of criminal responsibility, or the marriageable age.
The age of consent varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The median seems to range from 14 to 16 years, but laws stating ages as young as 12 and as old as 21 do exist. Some jurisdictions forbid sexual activity outside of legal marriage completely. 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 hard and fast single age. Charges resulting from a breach of these laws may range from a relatively low-level misdemeanor such as "corruption of a minor," to "statutory rape" (which is considered equivalent to rape, both in severity and sentencing).
There are many grey 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.
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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. The relevant age may also vary by the type of sexual act or the gender of the people concerned.
Social and legal attitudes
Social and legal attitudes toward the appropriate age of consent have drifted upward 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 the US, most of whose states have ages of consent 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 many states in the US, 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").
The enforcement practices of age of consent laws tend to vary depending on the social sensibilities of the culture in particular jurisdictions. Often enforcement is not exercised strictly to the letter of the law, with legal action being taken only when a sufficiently socially-unacceptable age gap exists between those involved, 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 often 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 the 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. So, for instance, asserting that one thought a pre-pubertal girl (ie, little or no breast development, no pubic hair, 'boy-like' hips, ...) was above the age of consent offends reason, and will likley be rejected. 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. Marriage can be a defence in those jurisdictions where the marriageable age is less than the age of consent. A famous example is the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, the pioneering rock musician, who married a your teenage girl; there was much reaction to this, including to his performing career, but no legal action.
Other legal aspects
- Relationships between adults and adolescents (under the age of consent) do not necessarily include sex. Many, probably most, involve sexual attraction alone. thus, 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, it 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).
In practice, countries covered by the European Court of Human Rights are unlikely to prosecute where the homosexual age of consent is greater than that for heterosexuals. There is also pressure being applied from the United Nations Human Rights Committee to "remove and prohibit any discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation".
Ages of consent in various countries
These are the broad ages for consensual insertive activity in private. But, beware that there are many laws in each of the various countries that criminalise types of consensual sex which may not be included here.
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 behavior 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.
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.
- Jersey: 16 (18 homosexual, private only)
- Guernsey: 16 (18 homosexual, possibly 16)
- Sark: 18 (possibly 16) (21 homosexual, possibly 18)
Isle of Man
- Thought to be probably 16 for heterosexual and 18 for homosexual (in privacy, i.e. only 2 present).
Prior to 1992 homosexuality was illegal but in that year the IOM adopted the UK Sexual Offences Act 1967 but have since apparently updated it. Homosexual age of consent is known to be greater as it has been the IOM government's stated intention for many years to equalise the ages.
- 16 according to Interpol but no clarity is made of homosexual age of consent.
- (18 was the general age set by the Criminal Offences (Amendment) Ordinance 1993)
- 17 heterosexual and homosexual (sources: Interpol and AgeOfConsent.com)
United States of America
- United States: varies from state to state, though usually between 16 and 18. Some states formerly forbade homosexual acts entirely, however some such laws have been found unconstitutional in a 2003 United States Supreme Court opinion (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 in Federal law to produce pornography featuring those under 18. 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.
- Ages of consent over the world - (note that this website does not appear to be up-to-date)
- IOM intentions
- Discriminatory laws in the United Kingdom 2000
- http://www.ageofconsent.com/ageofconsent.htm Sexual Age of Consent Around the World
- http://www.bmeworld.com/kabalist/Library/Law/legal.html Body Modification Age of Consent Around the World