The legal age of consent is the age at which one is legally considered capable of consenting to participation in sexual activities. In some legal systems, such as that of the European Union, this is referred to as the legal age for sexual activities. Engaging in sexual activities with individuals who have not reached such an age is generally considered to be against the law. This is because such younger individuals are not considered capable of making rational and mature decisions concerning their sexuality. The law seeks to protect them from those who would take advantage of their naivety and manipulate them into sexual activities.
There are many laws related to the legal age of offense. Most importantly, an individual may not have sex with someone who is below the age of consent. In some legal systems, such as that in the United States, having sex with an individual below the age of consent is considered to be a form of rape and can be punished as such. There also are laws in places where prostitution is legal that set age restrictions for engaging in such activity. Also, one who is below the legal age of consent is typically not legally allowed to participate in or view pornography.
Individual legal systems sometimes define terms differently and make exceptions to what sexual activities are and are not acceptable with those below the legal age of consent. For instance, punishable sexual activity can be considered as simple as kissing or petting under some legal systems. In other legal systems, full sexual intercourse is the only act that one cannot legally engage in with someone who is below the legal age.
In some places, the legal age of marriage is lower than that of consent. Sexual activity within marriage is, in these cases, permissible. An exception is also made when an individual below the age of consent rapes an older individual; the older individual is not punished. In some systems, people of reasonably similar ages below or near the age of consent, such as a 16 year old and a 17 year old, can legally engage in sexual activities. Occasionally, the laws applied to homosexual couples are different from those applied to heterosexual couples.
The specific ages of consent vary somewhat based on jurisdiction, gender, and sexuality. Most countries have an age of consent ranging from 15 to 18 years of age. In some countries, however, the age of consent is as low as 12 or 13 years of age. The legal age of consent for homosexual activities, if such activities are legal at all, is often higher than the age for heterosexual acts.