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Teens, Sex and the Law
Know the law around sex
It seems to many teens that adults are always making a big deal about people having sex under the age of consent. Many young people think that if they feel ready to have sex and they use protection, it is nothing to do with anyone else. But everyone needs to know what the law says about having sex and why we have laws about sex at all!
So what does the age of consent mean?
The age of consent is the age when the law says you are mature enough to be able to agree to have sex. In most countries, until you reach this age you can't legally have sex with anyone, however old they are, even if you want to. 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.
But our parents say it's okay. . .
That doesn't make any difference - your parents don't make the law. Teens can't get around the laws for smoking, drinking or driving because their parents say so, and it's the same with sex. The age of consent laws always apply; whether you're in love, have been together for ages, and even if you've had sex before.
But it's no-one else's business. Why do we have these laws?
Although some young people are mature enough to know how to deal with it if someone tries to get them to have sex, many teens are not grown up enough to know what to do. Age of consent laws are there to protect young people from being exploited by adults.
What is the age of consent?
What the age of consent is depends on where you live - there are different age limits in different places, and in some places the age of consent is different for boys and for girls. The law can also change depending on how old your partner is, and whether they are in a ‘position of authority’ – for example a teacher. To find out about the age of consent in your country or state, please see our age of consent chart.
Is the age of consent different if you’re straight, lesbian, gay or have another sexual identity?
Yes. In some countries, the age of consent for gay men and lesbians is much older than for straight people. In other places gay and lesbian relationships are actually against the law – though many countries are beginning to change this, as people of different sexualities demand their rights. It’s especially important to know about age of consent laws before you travel abroad.
To find out about your area and around the world, check our age of consent chart.
What is 'statutory rape'?
If you are under the age of consent and you choose to have sex with someone who is over the age of consent, then they can be charged with the crime of 'statutory rape'. Some countries have different names for this crime, and some states in the US call it 'unlawful sexual penetration' or just 'rape'.
And what's sexual abuse?
This is when a person is pressured into any type of sexual contact that they do not agree to. This can include ‘direct abuse’, such as inappropriate kissing, fondling of a persons genitals or other area of their body that they wouldn’t want to be touched, or when a person is made to touch another person in a way that they are not comfortable with. It can also include ‘indirect abuse’ which includes a person knowing that another person is being mistreated, but not doing anything about it.1 If you know anyone who is being pressurised in this way, you should tell an adult who you trust about what's going on.
Many countries have ‘Telephone Helplines’ that can give you advice and information about what you should do and who you should contact.
What about ‘forced marriage’?
A forced marriage is where one or both partners have not or cannot give their consent to getting married. This shouldn’t be confused with ‘arranged marriage’ where parents or family arrange a marriage, but both partners decide whether they want to get married or not.
Forced marriage is against the law in many countries, and it is a human rights violation under international law. Child marriage is considered to be forced marriage, because children are not considered capable of making an informed decision.2 3 See the Forced Marriage Unit for more help and advice, and if you or somebody you know is currently at risk of forced marriage or has been forced to marry, ask them to put you in touch with an organisation in your current country who can help you.
Know your sexual rights!
It's really important to know the laws that are in place to protect you. If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed on this page, talk to an adult that you trust, or get in touch with an advice organisation.