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Age of consent

The meaning of «age of consent»

The age of consent is the age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts. Consequently, an adult who engages in sexual activity with a person younger than the age of consent is unable to legally claim that the sexual activity was consensual, and such sexual activity may be considered child sexual abuse or statutory rape. The person below the minimum age is regarded as the victim, and their sex partner is regarded as the offender, unless both are underage. The purpose of setting an age of consent is to protect an underage person from sexual advances.

The term age of consent rarely appears in legal statutes.[1][page needed] Generally, a law will establish the age below which it is illegal to engage in sexual activity with that person. It has sometimes been used with other meanings, such as the age at which a person becomes competent to consent to marriage,[2] but the meaning given above is the one now generally understood. It should not be confused with other laws regarding age minimums including, but not limited to, the age of majority, age of criminal responsibility, voting age, drinking age, and driving age.

Age of consent laws vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,[1] though most jurisdictions set the age of consent in the range 14 to 18. The laws may also vary by the type of sexual act, the gender of the participants or other considerations, such as involving a position of trust; some jurisdictions may also make allowances for minors engaged in sexual acts with each other, rather than a single age. Charges and penalties resulting from a breach of these laws may range from a misdemeanor, such as corruption of a minor, to what is popularly called statutory rape.

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.[1]

In traditional societies, the age of consent for a sexual union was a matter for the family to decide, or a tribal custom. In most cases, this coincided with signs of puberty, menstruation for a woman, and pubic hair for a man.[3]

Reliable data for ages at marriage is scarce. In England, for example, the only reliable data in the early modern period comes from property records made after death. Not only were the records relatively rare, but not all bothered to record the participants' ages, and it seems that the more complete the records are, the more likely they are to reveal young marriages. Modern historians have sometimes shown reluctance to accept evidence of young ages of marriage, dismissing it as a 'misreading' by a later copier of the records.[3]

In the 12th century, Gratian, the influential compiler of canon law in medieval Europe, accepted the age of puberty for marriage (not sex) to be around twelve for girls and around fourteen for boys but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if both children were older than seven years of age.[4] There were authorities that said that such consent for entering marriage could take place earlier. Marriage would then be valid as long as neither of the two parties annulled the marital agreement before reaching puberty, or if they had already consummated the marriage. Judges sometimes honored marriages based on mutual consent at ages younger than seven: in contrast to established canon, there are recorded marriages of two- and three-year-olds.[3]

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