The world as viewed by ages of consent

About a month ago I read a piece of news that mentioned Turkey dropping a constitutional clause which protected children from sexual abuse, and leafed through the ensuing panic of the internet as there were fears that no legislation would come in to fill the void created by the actions of the country’s Constitutional Court. With hundreds of child abuse allegations and several million child brides already in the country, it became quite the fuss as NGOs, foreign press, and even diplomats feared at what Turkey might do in light of recent events.

It’s probable that the Court’s ruling was misread and that they had improvement of the law in mind — even if through the creation of a void, meant to be later developed into new legislation. But that got me thinking: can I understand anything about a nation by knowing its practices and taboos around age of consent?


I started researching this for lack of knowledge. Given the absence of a true international law around the age of consent, what I knew were bits and pieces out of what I now see as a huge puzzle that nobody knows exactly how to put together.

Age of consent is something contextual — so to speak. It comes with the laws of the land, and in some places it can be greater, whilst in others it can be lower — or even differ for boys and girls. Some places have even set ages of consent for gay sexual relationships.

But the concept of sex has, for all its universality, a very wide palette of nuances. Sexual behavior is, in some places, as all-encompassing as to include things like kissing — whilst it is true that for the most part, sexual behavior means actually having intercourse.

Age of consent is a legal notion — and it is thus enforced by law. Simply put, the age of consent is the age when you are considered to be capable of agreeing to have sex, and until you reach this specific age limit you’re barred from having sex with anyone, no matter how old they are. Or, on a different perspective, you’re protected from having sex with anyone, especially older people — since sometimes legislation can be a bit more lenient if partners are in the same age group.

Sexual behavior is, in some places, as all-encompassing as to include things like kissing.

Sure, some kids are ahead of their time — but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that they might get exploited, and this is specifically what age of consent laws have in mind — keeping kids safe from ill-willed adults. Even if it becomes something familially acceptable for people to start having sex at an early age, it’s still against the law. Just the same way you can’t legally consume certain substances before a certain age — no matter what your legal guardians might allow you to do. Age of consent legislation applies regardless of previous sexual encounters or emotional attachments between partners: if you’re too young to do it, then it’s illegal.

And this is the point of interest: when are you too young to have consensual sex?


As mentioned by Stephen Robertson of the University of Sydney, the concept of age of consent first came about in a secular fashion in 1275 England, as part of the rape law of the time. Put simply, it prohibited having intercourse with a virgin, regardless of her consent — and set the limit to lawful intercourse at 12 years of age.

Over the following centuries, it became normal in Western Europe to protect underage girls: men were very easily prosecuted for rape. But this also meant, as Robertson puts it, that girls that were not of age could not engage in any form of sexual activity — regardless of their willingness — with the only loophole to this being marriage, since sex during marriage was inconceivable at that time to be rape, and hence neither did age of consent apply anymore.

Yet it must be mentioned that in Medieval Europe seldom were laws enforced solely on the basis of age since little to no proof of age was ever provided.

The concept of age of consent first came about in a secular fashion in 1275 England.

It wasn’t until modern politics started that we see a clear direction. In the 1800s, moral reformers drew on the notion of consent to campaign against prostitution or, more specifically, child prostitution. Following a few such campaigns, Britain jumped its age of consent from 13 to 16 — which created a snowball of reform in the US as well. By the 1920s, most age of consent laws followed British example, with a few going the extra mile: imposing a limit on intercourse until 18 years of age.

By the second half of the 20th century, feminist reforming had expanded these laws and also challenged the century-old view of female passivity by pointing out that such laws protected all youth (female as well as male) from exploitation, rather than ‘ensuring their virginity’.


All this has lead to considerable shifts in legal ages everywhere on Earth. Researching for this post I’ve found a total of eleven ages of consent around the world. Ten of them are maturity defined and span out from as young as 11, growing in consecutive fashion up to 21 years of age — but skipping 19. The single remaining age of consent was not itself age dependent, as it was based on marital status (i.e. you can have sex with someone if you’re married to that someone).

Looking at the numbers I’ve also found vast fluctuations in sociodemographic and economic indicators, even within the same geographic units. I decided to highlight my results based on continents. Here’s the story.


North America

I’ll start with North America since most studies published that look at information such as the age of consent and age of marriage are based on US populations.

What I’ve found is that the most common age of consent here is 16 years of age. These countries have the largest average expenditure on education, the best civil liberties (as measured by Freedom House), relatively few homicides but above average counts of rape (whereby I mean sexual intercourse without valid consent).

The US is host to not one, but three ages of consent, which vary by state policy. These are 16 (the lowest, and hence the one taken here into consideration), 17, and 18 years of age.

Just three nations in this region had an age of consent of 15 — the lowest in the continent. But they also happened to have just as good a situation with respect to civil liberties, despite higher counts of rape.

Demographically we see that the highest age of the population happens to be in the countries that maintain age of consent at 16. Should this surprise? These nations also have the lowest mortality rate among neonates and the highest age of childbearing — with the (contextual) lowest population growth rate.

This is because one of those eleven countries is the United States. Here things might get a bit more complex since officially the US is host to not one, but three ages of consent, which vary by state policy. These are 16 (the lowest, and hence the one taken here into consideration), 17, and 18 years of age — with 27 states having close-in-age exemptions for situations in which both partners are young.

While 16 may not be even close to the worldwide minimum for the age of consent, US estimates of the number of children who are sexually abused vary wildly (from 3% to as much as 54%). Such a wide variation is caused by the lack of standardized definitions of terms and actions (i.e. what a child is and what molestation implies).

Estimates of the number of children in the US who are sexually abused vary wildly, from 3% to as much as 54%.

A study by Gene Abel and Nora Harlow published in 2001 found that in the US, child molesters match the average US population in education, percentage married or formerly married and religious observance — and that the overwhelming majority of molesters (roughly 68%) sexually abuse children of families in their social circle — with pedophilia being the most significant cause of child molestation. (Just as a sidenote, pedophilia has fuzzy borders when the perpetrator is young. For a person to be diagnosed with this, he or she must be at least 16 or at least five years older than the abused child.)

So do the numbers check out? I can’t really say. Whilst it might be true that the US has an above average rape rate (36.5 out of 100.000), this figure doesn’t distinguish precise counts of child sexual abuse.

Some studies mention that between 15% and 25% of American women — and 5% to 15% of American men had been subjected to some form of sexual abuse during their early years. In most cases the offenders were known to them, roughly 1/3rd relatives (notably first-degree relatives) and about 60% were members of the community. Strangers came in last, with only 1 in 10 cases of child molestation occurring this way. And in over 1/3rd of cases, the perpetrator was also underage.

Studies researching US demographic figures have also highlighted the hardships couples face in maxing out their individual earnings (given both of them are employed) — and in particular, the career sacrifices women are shown to make for their husbands. So while married men and unmarried women tend to be agiler on the job market, the same cannot be said for married women — whose wages take a nosedive. So it seems that marriage does not affect each sex the same way; at least in the US.

Europe

There’s a similar situation across the pond. Most European countries also have an age of consent of 16. But we also see big clusters of nations with 15 and 14 years as legal ages of consent.

Within some cultural groups, the practice of child marriage survives.

In developed nations which have a good industrial infrastructure, few women commit to marriage or are coerced into this prior to the age of 18. Yet within some cultural groups, the practice of child marriage survives — which is the case of the Roma people in Central and Southeastern Europe. Overall it seems that even in less rich and highly traditional countries of the developed world all strata of society have started giving up on early marriage and have started shunning early pregnancy.

Yet countries with low ages of consent seem to have lower mean ages of giving birth — little or negative population growth and more women than men. These countries also had among the lowest counts of rape and homicide — whilst at the opposite range, we see the lowest counts of rape where nations are far more religious and the age of consent is set at 18.

Africa

Early marriage here is generally more prevalent in the Central and Western part of the continent. Many of these brides, as reported by UNICEF, are second or third wives in polygamous households — and apparently in some situations the ‘stress of contracting HIV’ contributes to men seeking young brides. It must be said that in a few African countries the number of girls that marry young is low and that the whole continent is pushing towards later marriages — but then again, Africa also hosts nations which go completely against this trend.

Here my dataset started getting a bit blurry. Africa is host to a very diverse range of legislation with respect to consensual sex. The worldwide minimum of 11 is in Nigeria — where I’ve found a very young median population, low life expectancy and more men than women.

What did stand out is that the lower or higher the age of consent, the less civil liberties of each population. But I failed to find any reliable data on most nations with respect to some indicators.

Many African and Asian peoples continue to support the notion (cultural or not) that puberty is the single most important sign for a girl being ready to marry. These cultures tend to look upon marriage with a strategic perspective, something akin to family politics, or an economic arrangement which also happens to protect young girls from undesirable sexual experiences — even if the groom accepted by the family can be twice the age of the un-would-be bride.

In some situations the ‘stress of contracting HIV’ contributes to men seeking young brides.

The assumption behind female evolution with respect to marriage practice is that once she’s bound by wedlock, she effectively becomes a woman — even if her age is scarcely that of a teenager. UNICEF states that even while the age of marriage tends to be on the rise, very early marriages (i.e. marrying children) is something of a widespread practice. And this, in turn, is a violation of human rights; very young girls that marry are bound almost certainly to a very low mean age of first pregnancy and are thus likely to be thrown into a life cycle by which they become domestically and sexually subservient.

Asia

Here it seems that marriage does not follow a single trend. With all of its diversity, Asia sees both extremes of the marriage-age scale with places having a mean age of first marriage in a girls’ early teens — whilst others see mean ages of marriage late into their 20’s.

A study published in 2004 by David Loughran and Julie Zissimopoulos shows that educational attainment stands out as the most significant difference between early and late marriers: 14% of individuals marrying before 23 years of age earn a college degree or higher as compared to 43% of people that marry after the age of 27. What’s more, the difference in educational attainment between early and late marriers is ‘reflected in occupational choice, wages and family income’.

Almost a quarter of Asia has no specific age of consent — meaning that marriage is the way in which intercourse becomes legal.

Their findings show that the hourly wage for people that marry later in life comes down to about $8.5, as compared to $6.5 for early marriers. Added to this, later marriers are also more likely to work in professional occupations and have overall family incomes 29% higher than people who marry early.

But in Asia, this would seem to be off target. Countries with higher ages of consent also encounter far worse conditions with respect to their civil societies. What’s more, well-developed nations (Japan stands out in this respect) tended to have ages of consent of 16 or lower.

Almost a quarter of Asia has no specific age of consent — meaning that marriage is the way in which intercourse becomes legal. That, in turn, means that in some situations, these marriages can (and do) include child brides — a case similar to those found in Africa.

Both African and Asian nations with either very high or marriage-determined consent ages showed up as being sub-average when it came to how much they were spending on education. A 2004 study showed that marriage has little to no impact on wage growth for men. But Loughran and Zissimopoulos found themselves that marriage does have a detrimental effect on wage growth among women with ‘potentially high returns to career development’. That is to say, they cancel out much of a woman’s potential.

South America and Oceania

Since these continents tend to have some similar counts, I thought it best to save some space and highlight their takeaways together.

Roughly one in ten girls under the age of 19 are married in South America — and the picture in Oceania is not that clear since I’ve not found any relevant data on the topic.

Populations here seem to be more homogeneous with respect to their neighbors, and yet it’s easy to see that the lower the age of consent, the higher the counts of either homicide or rape.

So what does this all mean?

Regretfully, in many of the world’s nations early marriage falls into what UNICEF amounts to a sanctions limbo (prohibited by legislation yet condoned by customs and religious practice).

Studies show that in populations with little reproductive control, age at marriage impacts fertility in a very direct way — that is to say that the longer the risk of conception (i.e. the younger the bride, the more time she spends with her husband), the better the odds of conception taking place. As put forward by Larry Bumpass and Edward Mburugu, ‘other things being equal, the remaining years of risk after the birth of the last wanted child will be fewer for those marrying later.’

But a different picture gets painted when looking at populations that do have reproductive control: fertility is not so much influenced by the brute duration of time in which a woman may become pregnant, but more so by social factors such as selective marriage patterns and contraceptive use.

‘Other things being equal, the remaining years of risk after the birth of the last wanted child will be fewer for those marrying later.’

Where having kids before being married is frowned upon, taking one’s time before committing to wedlock reduces the overall fertility of that specific area. That’s because there are few years of a woman’s life in which she could bear children without fear of being rejected by her peers and community. A corollary of this is that women that eventually have kids in places where it’s frowned upon to do so prior to being married end up having less offspring — which furthermore impacts the growth rate of the population.


By tallying up the numbers in the above graph I’ve highlighted that most countries nowadays have the age of consent set at 16 — and that most of them are considered to be free nations. What all of this shows is that the more age of consent is skewed toward the extremes — either 11 (which could very well coincide with being required to having been married) or 21, the higher the odds of that country being less of an ideal place to live. Especially if you’re a child bride.

The takeaway is this: raising the age of consent can and will prevent sexual exploitation, decrease teen pregnancy and control teen sexuality in developing nations — but in developed countries, the age of consent ceases to be the preferred route as education and training, medical access, decreased poverty and the general attitude of the population keeps child abuse from happening — most of the time, at least.

Have any questions about this? Tweet me at alexgabriel_i


  • Stephen Robertson, “Age of Consent Laws,” in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/230 (accessed August 17, 2016).
  • Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study — The Stop Child Molestation Book, Xlibris 2001
  • Whealin, Julia (22 May 2007). “Child Sexual Abuse”. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs.
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  • AGE AT MARRIAGE AND COMPLETED FAMILY SIZE — Larry Bumpass, Edward Mburu
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  • Are There Gains to Delaying Marriage? The Effect of Age at First Marriage on Career Development and Wages ∗ David S. Loughran and Julie M. Zissimopoulos RAND 1776 Main St. Santa Monica, CA 90407–2138 loughran@rand.org ziss@rand.org November 8, 2004
  • http://www.unicef.org/crc/
  • http://www.avert.org/sex-stis/age-of-consent
  • http://www.worldlawdirect.com/article/1889/age-consent-issues.html
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