SEX IN DEPTH
The age of innocence in Asia
By William Sparrow
BANGKOK - 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
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
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
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.
William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online
and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in
chief of Asian Sex Gazette and has reported on sex in Asia for over five years.