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 behaviour 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 16 to 18 years, but laws stating ages ranging from 12 to 21 do exist. In many jurisdictions, age of consent is interpreted to mean mental or functional age. As a result, victims can be of any chronological age if their mental age is below the age of consent. Some jurisdictions forbid sexual activity outside of legal marriage completely. The relevant age may also vary by the type of sexual act, the sex 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.
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, 15 to 18 had become the norm in many countries by the end of the 20th century.
The general moral philosophy behind age of consent laws is the assumed need for the protection of minors. It is a common belief in many societies that minors below a certain age lack the maturity or life experience to fully understand the ramifications of engaging in sexual acts. These fears may include but are not limited to resulting pregnancies and psychological or physical damage. There is an ongoing debate in many cultures regarding child sexuality as it relates to age and an appropriate age of consent. It is these debates that have informed the various laws in different jurisdictions and account for their disparity. Different cultures regard minors engaging in sexual activity as anything from normal to deviant behavior in need of correction.
Many legal systems refer to or are informed by the moral viewpoint of lawmakers, or refer to or appeal to cultural and religious norms. For example the Common law systems practised in the United Kingdom and its former colonies were developed in the context of Christian values. Similarly the Laws in many Muslim based countries are based on the Qur'an and the resulting Sharia. In some legal systems secular philosophies form part of the culture and likewise are part of the context in which the laws are formed, sometimes leading to changes in the law of previous periods. Difference in opinion between various religious and secular groups forms a part of the cultural context of age of consent.
Sexual relations with a person under the age of consent is in general a criminal offence, with punishments ranging from community service up to and including the death penalty. Many different terms exist for the charges laid and include child sexual abuse, statutory rape, illegal carnal knowledge, or corruption of a minor.
The enforcement practices of age of consent laws tend to 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 authority over the minor -- e.g., a teacher, priest or doctor. The gender of each actor can also influence perceptions of an individual's guilt and therefore enforcement.
In many jurisdictions, age of consent is interpreted to mean mental or functional age. As a result, victims can be of any chronological age if their mental age is below the age of consent.
While some legislation dealing with age of consent sets a hard and fast age under which sexual relations are prohibited, some jurisdictions have included exceptions to this. The exception can take the form of a defense at trial on the grounds of the close age of the participants, or can be an actual close in age exemption in the law negating any charges. The latter details acceptable age ranges for consensual sex between peers that otherwise would not be legal because one or both of the participants would be below the age of consent. The age differences of these two types of legislation vary by jurisdiction, from as low as one year (as in South Australia) to as high as ten years.
The age of consent is a legal barrier to the minor being able to give consent and as such obtaining consent is not in general a defence to having sexual relations with a person under the prescribed age. However, there are some defences in some jurisdictions, particularly European. Common examples include:
Increasingly the age of consent laws of a state are applied not only to acts committed on its own territory, but also acts committed by its nationals or inhabitants on foreign territory. This is of questionable legality under international law but such questions are often ignored or neglected, for the most part for social and/or religious reasons. Such provisions have been frequently adopted to help reduce the incidence of child sex tourism. See the relevant sections below for discussion of laws in specific jurisdictions. See also Universal jurisdiction; the effective age of consent may be the highest of those corresponding to the list in Applicable jurisdictions.
Some jurisdictions (such as Bahamas, Bermuda, Chile, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Suriname and Vanuatu) have higher ages of consent for homosexual intercourse, while 70 out of 195 jurisdictions around the world outlaw homosexual intercourse altogether. These disparities are increasingly being challenged. Cases such as Lawrence v. Texas in the Supreme Court of the United States and Morris v. The United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights have set precedents for international law. For specific examples see the articles listed under Ages of consent in various countries below.
Published books on the subject:
This article is based on "Age of consent" from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org). It is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licencse. In the Wikipedia you can find a list of the authors by visiting the following address: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Age+of+consent&action=history