The "age of consent" is the minimum age at which a person is considered legally competent to consent to sexual acts. A person younger than the age of consent (i.e.: underaged) cannot legally confirm that a sexual act in which they participated was consensual. To state it another way, in the eyes of the law, they are not yet old enough to consent to sex. As a result, if a person over the age of consent engages in sexual activity with a partner who is underaged, this activity may be considered statutory rape. In fact, in some jurisdictions, a sexual act can be considered statutory rape even if all participants were underaged.
Age of consent laws vary considerably worldwide. Most countries require young people to be at least 14 before having sex. But there are exceptions. Angola and the Philippines both set the age of consent at 12, which is the lowest in the world. Several other countries, including Niger and Japan, have designated 13 as the age of consent—although Japan has notoriously inconsistent consent laws that designate different ages of consent, ranging from 13 to 20, depending upon where one is in the country. Additionally, several countries in Asia and Africa require individuals to be married before they can legally have sex. These include Libya, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, all of which are highly conservative on issues of gender and sexuality.
Many countries, states, or territories also have "close-in-age" exemptions, commonly called "Romeo and Juliet" clauses. These laws can remove legal liability when all participants in a sex act are underaged (for example, two 16-year-olds). In areas that do not have close-in-age exemptions, it is possible for a person who is under the age of consent to be held liable for engaging in sexual activity with another underaged person. For example: If a country has no Romeo and Juliet clause and its age of consent of 16, two 15-year-olds who willingly have sex with one another could both be prosecuted for statutory rape.
While most European countries set 16-17 as the age of consent, several others, including Malta and Vatican City, require young people to be at least 18 before legally having sex. Europe's lowest age of consent is 14, which applies in countries including Austria, Italy, Serbia, Germany, and Portugal.
Aruba, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadies all share the lowest age of consent in North America at 15 years old. In the United States, the age of consent is decided individually by each state and ranges from 16 to 18. Most countries in South America choose 14 as the age of consent, including Paraguay, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador. However, Chile and Argentina have the highest ages of consent in the Americas at 18 years old.
Finally, note that the age of consent laws, whose purpose is to curb sexual exploitation of minors, are not the same as the minimum age to marry laws, which are designed to deter child marriages. Now we'll take a closer look at the age of consent in certain countries.
Age of Consent in Japan
Japan has multiple overlapping laws that address the age of consent. As a result, the age of consent varies significantly across the country. The three primary laws that define the age of consent in Japan are the Penal Code of Japan, the Juvenile Obscene Acts, and the Civil Codes. Each of these sets out different guidelines as to when sexual activity is acceptable. To further add confusion, some of these guidelines apply to the whole of Japan, while others apply only to a subset of Japan’s 47 administrative regions, or prefectures.
The Penal Code of Japan was established in 1907 and sets the age of consent at 13. Any sexual activity with a person under 13 is considered to be statutory rape and can result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years. However, chapter 34 of the Child Welfare Act also forbids any act of 'fornication' with children (defined as anyone under 18 years of age).
The Juvenile Obscene Acts, which take precedence over the Penal Code, set out laws relating to the age of consent for specific prefectures. In some, sexual activity with anyone under 15 is illegal, but in others, the age is 18. In these prefectures, engaging in sexual activity with a person under the age of consent can lead to a prison sentence of up to five years. Although rare, in some prefectures, even hugging or holding hands with someone underage can be illegal.
The Civil Codes also approach the age of consent at the prefecture level (and sometimes municipalities within a prefecture). In Japan, a person must reach the age of 20 to be considered an adult, and parental consent plays a significant role in legal issues affecting young people.
With regard to the age of consent, this means that it is illegal to marry a person under 20 without written parental permission. This applies regardless of the partner's age as Japan does not have a 'close-in-age exemption' concerning the age of consent (i.e. even if one person is 20 and the other is 19). Additionally, some prefectures have specific laws beyond those outlined above, which apply only to that prefecture. For example, Tokyo has a Youth Protection Law that makes it illegal for an adult to engage in sexual activity with anyone below 17, but this only applies in Tokyo. Although the various age of consent laws in Japan can be somewhat confusing, they combine to give Japan one of the world’s highest average ages of consent. The de facto age of consent is generally considered to be 18, if not higher.
Age of Consent in Germany
The age of consent in Germany is 14 years old. Prosecution for statutory rape (or the local equivalent) can result in prison time ranging from 6 months to 10 years. The age of consent in Germany is 14 if both partners are under 18. Sexual activity with a person under 18 is punishable if the adult is a person of authority over the minor in upbringing, education, care, or employment.
A person who is over 21 may engage in sexual activity with someone who is 14 or older, but not yet 16, so long as the younger individual's lack of capacity for sexual self-determination is not exploited. If it is, the younger individual would need to file a complaint against the person who is over 21 for legal action to begin. Sexual activity performed without consent or by force in any situation is illegal.
The age of consent of 14 (16 for "unblemished" girls whose parents filed a complaint) was established by the German Empire's Criminal Code in 1872. When Germany split into West Germany and the Democratic Republic of Germany after World War II, each territory established slightly different codes concerning consent. After the reunification of Germany, the age of consent remained at 14 and Code Section 182 was refreshed with the current guidelines.
Age of Consent in Mexico
The age of consent in Mexico is 17 years old. However, each of Mexico's 20 territories also has its own age of consent laws, with minimum consent ranging from age 14 in Tlaxcala to age 18 in many territories. Mexico does not have a close-in-age consent exemption. This means that two people under 17 years old who willingly engage in sexual activity are both subject to being prosecuted for statutory rape. This also applies to one partner being 16 and the other 17.
Age of Consent in South Korea
According to South Korea's Criminal Act Article 305, the age of consent in South Korea is 20 years old. This is one of the oldest ages of consent in the world. Previously, the age of consent in South Korea was 13, one of the lowest in the world. However, there were significant stipulations to this age, which resulted in multiple complicated cases that sometimes seem to contradict one another. Note: These ages are measured in international age, which starts at zero on one's birthday, as opposed to Korean age, which counts time in the womb and adds a year on Jan 01, so it is usually 1-2 years older than international age.
Age of Consent in Canada
With the enactment of the Tackling Violent Crimes Act in 2008, Canada's age of consent rose from 14 to 16 years old. This was the first time the age was raised since 1892. The law applies to all forms of sexual activity and was crafted with the goal of deterring online predators. The law includes a "close-in-age" exception. Therefore, 14- and 15-year-olds can legally consent to someone who is less than five years older than them, and 12- and 13-year-olds can consent to a partner if the partner is less than two years older than them. There must be no relationship of authority or dependency or any exploitation of the younger person for the consent to be valid.
Age of Consent in Pakistan
There is no age of consent in Pakistan. All sexual activity in Pakistan is illegal until marriage. The minimum age of marriage for men is 18, and for women, it is 16. In some instances, women are allowed to marry at 14 years old. Once two people are married, their ages are no longer a concern and sex is legal. Consensual same-sex relations are criminalized in Pakistan.
Age of Consent in China
The age of consent in mainland China is 14 years old. China's two special administrative regions, Macau and Hong Kong, have their own local age of consent laws. Like China, Macau's age of consent is 14 years old. The age of consent in Hong Kong is 16 years old.
Age of Consent in France
According to Article 227-25 of the Penal Code, the age of consent in France is 15 years old under typical circumstances, and 18 when the sex act is with a relative or person who holds "legal or factual authority" over the underaged participant. Statutory rape (or its local equivalent) is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 (US$83,226). The legislation was only recently passed in April 2018 after an uproar regarding two men accused of having sex with 11-year-old girls. The French government decided between setting the age to 13 or 15. All ten territories of France have also set their age of consent to 15. France has a Romeo and Juliet clause, which removes liability when a person under the age of 15 has sex with someone who is within five years of their age.
Age of Consent in Russia
The age of consent in Russia is 16 years old. However, as with many countries, Russia's age of consent has changed several times. The Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) stated that consent was when "sexual maturity" was reached. It was set to 16 years old in 1996 when the Criminal Code of Russia was established, lowered to 14 years old in 1998, and then raised again to 16 in 2003. There is no close-in-age law in Russia. However, articles 134 and 135 of the Criminal Code, which lay out the terms for statutory rape, state that the offender must be 18 or older to be legally liable, thereby establishing roughly the same protections that a close-in-age clause would establish.
Age of Consent in Italy
The age of consent in Italy is 14 years old, and rises to 16 when one participant is in a position of authority or influence over the other (teacher, clergyman, etc). Additionally, it is illegal to perform sexual acts when an individual under 14 is present to witness them, even if said minor does not participate. Sexual activity with a prostitute under the age of 18 is illegal in Italy. Additionally, Italy does have a close-in-age rule where 13-year-olds can legally consent to partners who are less than three years older (or younger).
Age of Consent in the Philippines
The age of consent in the Philippines is 12 years old, one of the youngest in the world. Sexual activity with an individual younger than 12 is considered statutory rape and will result in punishment as such. The age of consent rises to 18 for acts involving coercion, prostitution, force, threat, or intimidation.
The age of consent in the Philippines stirs controversy. Many argue that an individual of this age does not have the emotional or physical maturity to make an informed decision about sex. Additionally, individuals under 18 cannot access safeguards such as contraception or HIV/AIDs testing without parental consent. The Philippine government is in the process of raising its age of consent to 16, which will most likely go into effect sometime in 2022.
Age of Consent in the United States
The age of consent in the United States varies from 16 to 18 years old depending on the state. Sexual activity with a partner under the age of consent in that jurisdiction is considered statutory rape. In some jurisdictions, sexual activity between all-underaged participants can also be regarded as statutory rape.
Thirty-one states set the age of consent as 16, eight set it as 17, and eleven set it as 18. Twenty-six states have "Romeo and Juliet" laws, or close-in-age laws, legalizing sexual activity between underaged participants if they are close enough to one another in age. The maximum age gaps in these laws vary by state. For example, in Colorado, the age of consent is 17 years old, but those younger than 15 may consent to a partner who is less than four years older, and those aged 15 or 16 may consent to a partner who is up to 10 years older. By comparison, Arizona law sets the age of consent at 18, but allows teens aged 15-17 to consent to sex with partners who are no more than 24 months older.
Age of Consent in Australia
In almost all of Australia's territories, including the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia, the age of consent in Australia is 16 years old. However, two of Australia's territories, Tasmania and South Australia, have raised the age of consent to 17. As in many countries, the age of consent rises to 18 if the older participant happens to be in a position of care or authority (teacher, legal guardian, clergy, etc.) over the underaged participant. Several jurisdictions have close-in-age exemptions, which also vary depending upon the territory.
Age of Consent in the United Kingdom
The age of consent in the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) is 16 years old. Moreover, the UK's territories all have their own local age of consent laws. However, at present, all of these territories also set the age of consent at 16. The United Kingdom does not have close-in-age exemptions. Two individuals under the age of consent can be prosecuted for engaging in sexual activity.
Age of Consent in India
According to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, India's age of consent is 18 years old. Individuals 17 or under cannot legally consent to sexual activity, and doing so could result in prosecution for statutory rape. In 1892, the age of consent was 10, but it has gradually risen over time to 18. There are arguments to have the age of consent lowered to 16 years old, as many cases of sexual assault reported to the police involve individuals between the ages of 16 and 18 who have consensual sex but are reported by disapproving parents.
Age of Consent in Thailand
As specified in Article 279 of the Thai Penal Code, the age of consent in Thailand is 15 years old, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. However, follow-up legislation has added a number of additional caveats.
The 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act regulates gratuitous sexual activity with partners younger than 18 and is often broadly interpreted by local authorities to include sexual situations that involve regular people rather than prostitutes. Moreover, the Penal Code Amendment Act of 1997 made it illegal to engage in an "indecent act" with anyone under 18 even if that person is a willing participant. This is also a "compoundable" offense, which means charges can be filed months later if a partner (or a parent) has regrets. As a result of these regulations, Thailand has a legal age of consent of 15, but an effective age of consent of 18. Thailand does not have a close-in-age exemption.
Age of Consent in Europe, Asia, Africa, and other continents.
The ages of consent in Europe, Asia, or any other continent vary by country and territory. Ages of consent range from 12 to 21 years old, with most countries setting theirs between 14 and 16. Nearly a dozen countries, such as Iran, Qatar, Yemen, and Afghanistan, outlaw premarital sex entirely but have no age restriction on marital sex. Several other countries have ages of consent above 16, including Cyprus (17), Ireland (17), Turkey (18), Iraq (18), Vietnam (18), and Bahrain (21). Additionally, some countries have close-in-age exemptions while others do not.
Age of Consent in Sweden
Specified by the Swedish Penal Code, Chapter 6, the age of consent in Sweden is 15 years old, and rises to 18 if the potential offender is a parent or occupies some other position of power or trust over the underaged person (teacher, clergy, foster parent, coach, etc). Sweden has a close-in-age law that can exempt those who have sexual contact with a partner under the age of 15, but who are themselves no more than three years older than said partner. Unusually, the age of consent law in Sweden even applies if the sexual act in question took place outside of Sweden, but the offender then traveled to or visited Sweden.