The Age of Innocence in Asia

Societies all over the world struggle – both legally and morally – to define the age that young people can legally consent to sex. It is an issue complicated by religion, politics and culture. In Asia, the laws defining ages of consent for both genders are varied and complex.

The average age for sexual consent across Asia is roughly 14.5 years (actually 14.7 for heterosexual relations and between 13.8 to 14.5 for homosexual sex of both genders). The West isn’t so far off; for example, in the US the average legal age for sexual consent is 16, as determined by state.

Three categories are usually defined when establishing the legal age of sexual consent: male and female sex, male homosexual sex and female homosexual sex.

In most Muslim countries, male homosexual relations are illegal, and in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the punishment can be death. In these countries the age of consent for heterosexual sex is not defined, but the partners must be married. Sadly, media reports indicate that girls are married off as young as six years old.

The same “must be married” mandate applies in Bahrain, Lebanon, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, but these countries specify an age – ranging from 15 to 18 years old – for sex between married couples. These age requirements are often ignored in some of these countries, according to reports.

The Philippines has the lowest age of consent in Asia at just 12 years old – an age shared by Angola, Mexico and Zimbabwe. A Japanese law allows for consent at age 12, but this only applies to metro Tokyo. Japan’s federal laws put sexual consent at 13 years old, but prefecture law raises the national average much higher.

In the Philippines, the consensual age of 12 applies to males and females alike. But sex with a person under 18 is an offense if, like in Japan, the minor’s consent has stemmed from prostitution or coercion. Simply put, the Philippines and Japan fall into a 12 to 18 age bracket for sexual consent, depending on the nature of the sexual relationship.

In the popular sex tourism destination of Thailand, the age of sexual consent is 15, but this seems to apply only to Thais. In the sex trade, women must be 18 or older. In South Korea, the age for sex – homosexual or not – is 13. China, Brunei, Israel, Mongolia and India legally allow consensual, heterosexual sex at 14.

Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all have an interesting legal approach. These countries have made male homosexual sex illegal, but have defined the age of lesbian sex permissible at age 16.

Clearly, it’s a complicated matter, and made more so by globalization. US federal law defines an adult as someone 18 years or older. Recent US legislation has also sought to criminalize US citizens who have sex with minors abroad. Regardless of whether the act was legal in the host country, the US Protect Act of 2003 will prosecute Americans for having sex with women under the age of 18 while overseas.

Similar laws have been passed in Canada and Europe, most notably in Britain and Australia. Meanwhile, in Asia countries such as South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and others have increased their exchange of information with the West in the form of lists of known pedophiles, local arrests of Westerns having under-aged sex and increased cooperation in the arrest and extradition process. Now, even if an offending visitor faced no charges under local laws, they may face prosecution at home.

Recently, the complexity of the age issue was underscored by an American friend of mine. After retaining the services of a prostitute in Hong Kong’s red-light district of Wan Chai, he happened to catch a glance at her identification card. He was shocked to learn that she was 17, and a few months shy of her 18th birthday.

He was aghast, and well aware of how this could be viewed in the US. Even though Hong Kong’s local law makes the age of consent 16, the act of prostitution was illegal and therefore any local prosecution would then be passed to US authorities. Legal troubles aside, he would also be labelled as a pedophile.

My friend escaped unscathed. But his experience is hardly unique; young women in the sex trade rarely reveal their real age. Foreigners seeking under-aged sex is deplorable, but falling into the situation accidentally is another matter entirely and not one to be taken lightly.

Laws and legal definitions are put forth by societies to protect young people from exploitation and abuse. Yet all too often these same laws are circumvented, ignored or unenforced.