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Age of Sexual Consent
What is 'age of consent'?
There are some important laws regarding sex and young people, and these are usually known as the age of consent laws. The age of consent is the age at which a young person is legally able to understand and agree to consensual sex. In most countries, until you reach this age it is illegal for somebody to have sex with you, however old they may be. Sometimes the law is slightly different when the partners are of a similar age, but there is usually still a minimum age below which sex is always illegal.
What is the legal age to have sex?
There is no international age of consent and the age when a person is legally able to consent to sex depends on a country's age of consent laws. Age of consent laws are usually complex and, in many countries, the legal age to consent to sex is different depending on certain conditions. These include, but are not limited to:
- Male or female
- Anal sex
- Vaginal sex
- Partner age difference
- A partner that represents a position of authority
- Existing state, territory and federal laws
- If partners are married or unmarried
Being aware of global variations in the age of consent is important to avoid breaking the law in countries that have laws different to your country of residence.
Follow the individual links below for information on the age of consent by country and any specific conditions that modify the age of consent.
Although some young people may feel that they are mature enough to engage in a sexual relationship, others may lack the emotional development to deal with this or to feel confident enough to say 'no'. Age of consent laws are there to protect young people from being sexually exploited by adults. Sex before the age of 15 years and among partners where there is a large age difference may increase the risk of HIV transmission.1 2 Governments can, to some extent, reduce the risk of HIV infection among young people by ensuring the age of consent for sex, and also marriage, is not too low.
If you're a young person, and you want to find out more, read our page on teens, sex and the law. You might also like to have a look at our "Am I ready for sex?" page.
What are 'sugar daddies' and 'sugar mummies'?
Sugar daddies and sugar mummies are much older than their partners, providing them with money and gifts in exchange for company and sexual favours. Young men and women often leave education early, with the belief that their needs will be met by their older partner. This is common phenomenon in many countries, and where HIV prevalence is high, sex with a sugar daddy or sugar mummy contributes to new HIV infections amongst young people.
You should always use a condom when having sex. Although it can be difficult to insist on using a condom, especially if your partner gives you money and gifts, you risk becoming infected with HIV and other STIs if condoms are not used all the time.
What counts as 'sex'?
This, too, is different, depending on the laws in the place where you live. Some places count things like kissing as sexual contact, and other places only count sexual intercourse. You should check out the laws in your state or country.
What is statutory rape?
Statutory rape is the crime that someone can be charged with if they have sex with a person who has not reached the age of consent, but who agrees to have sex. Some countries have different names for this. Some states in the US for example call it 'unlawful sexual penetration' or just 'rape'.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is the term for an adult using their age or authority over a young person to have any type of sexual contact. There is a difference between this and two young people who are in a consenting relationship. If you are a young person involved in an abusive relationship it is important to talk to someone about this.
If you are worried because you know of a young person who you think is in an abusive sexual relationship, you must think carefully about what would be the right thing to do. Telephone helplines and sources of help in your country will be able to advise you.
Age of consent by country
- 1. UNAIDS (2010) 'UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic'
- 2. UNICEF (2011) 'Opportunity in Crisis: Preventing HIV from early adolescence to young adulthood'