Should We Lower the Age of Consent for Sex?

At what age is someone mature enough to consent to sex? The issue is up for debate in England, where some experts are suggesting the British government lower its age of consent from 16 to 15 years old. In America, individual states determine age of consent standards, with all falling between 16 and 18 years old. But teens are obviously getting it on before these ages. Could antiquated consent laws be a hindrance to practicing safe sex?

"Because we ... have kept the age of consent at 16, the 15 year olds don't have clear routes to getting some support," said John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health. Lowering the age would help more teens get access to birth control, condoms and sexual-health services.

Legally, the age of consent is a minimum age at which young adults are considered competent to consent to sex. Without age of consent laws, there would be no way to stop older predators from claiming a 15- or 13-year-old had consented to sex. With them, adults who engage in sex activities with those past puberty but under the age of consent can be charged with things such as corruption of a minor or statutory rape. Yet age of consent laws have become controversial in their application. In extreme cases, 17- and 18-year-olds have been charged for sex acts with people just a year or two their junior. Following the letter of the law, my parents — who met at 15 and 17 and have been married more than 30 years — may have been engaging in illegal activities.

Historically, the age of consent has been all over the place. In medieval Europe, consent was considered meaningful for children older than seven. By the beginning of the 20th century, many countries had raised the age of consent to 12, and a few had raised it as high as 16. By the 1920s, all U.S. states had raised it to at least 14 years old, and these days the age of consent is between 16 and 18 across America.

In other parts of the world, consent laws vary greatly. In Argentina, for instance, the age of consent is 13; in Tunisia, it's 20. Canada raised its age of consent from 14 to 16 in 2008. In Bolivia, it's the onset of puberty, regardless of age. And in Indonesia, girls can legally consent at 16 but boys can't until age 19.