The legal age of consent varies widely around the world — and even within the United States, it's way more complicated than we thought. Let's take a tour.
To give you an idea of how complex state consent laws are within the US, we've made this table of New York's.
And that's not even counting the laws governing "sexual contact" when there's no intercourse involved. Of course, all this complexity isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many people would agree that an eighteen-year-old having sex with a fifteen-year-old deserves to be treated differently than, say, a fortysomething sleeping with a high-schooler. And it's also true that, while strict lines are necessary for legal purposes, whether someone is "old enough" to consent to sex is a little fuzzier. Disability issues come into play, as does the very ill-defined concept of emotional maturity, and it's no wonder that the idea of when one becomes a sexually autonomous person varies widely around the globe.
Given this, it's tempting to be completely relativistic about age of consent — to chalk up, say, child marriage in Yemen to cultural differences and move on. But it's important, too, to listen to the voices of those for whom age of consent laws were created in the first place — children and teens who need protection. One such person is Nujood Ali, whose fight for her own divorce at the age of 10 drew attention to the victimization of other girls. Ultimately, the task of legislators around the globe in determining consent laws is to figure out what's in the best interests of young people — and one way to start that process is to hear what they have to say.