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. Strictly this is regardless of his or her own age, but if two young people engage in sex than the older one is considered to commit a crime, especially if the age difference is relatively large (see also below).

The age of consent should not to be confused with the age of majority or age of criminal responsibility. The marriageable age is not necessarily the same as the age of consent. In some countries the two are different.

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, with some countries in the Middle East holding female ages of consent in the single-digit range.

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 U.S. states 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").

The enforcement practices of age of consent laws tend to vary depending on the social sensiblities 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.

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 frequently 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 only apply 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 less 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.

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).

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 on foreign territory. Such provisions have been frequently adopted to help tackle the problem of child sex tourism.

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.

See: Criminal law

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