The age of consent is 16 in the UK. The age of criminal responsibility in and is 10, and 12 in .

Given that the age of consent is the age at which an individual is deemed legally competent to understand the notion of consent - without which they cannot knowingly engage in a non-consensual act - how is it possible for anyone under the age of 16 to be prosecuted for rape?

(Granted it can be argued that a person understands consent with regards to others first and themselves second, but that would likely run counter to Theory of Mind and developmental psychology as a whole!)

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    Not sure about UK, but in the U.S. the age of consent is only used to define statutory rape, and people under the age of consent are not prosecuted for statutory rape.
    – feetwet
    Jun 7, 2016 at 13:46
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because I don't see that there's a legal question as opposed to a political question aout why the law is what it is.
    – user6726
    Jun 7, 2016 at 17:09
  • @user6726 aren't some questions about why the law is what it is about legal theory rather than politics?
    – phoog
    Jun 8, 2016 at 3:59
  • I will say no, because law and politics are distinct albeit related topics. Law is essentially the statement of political ideals as objective principles (established somehow – royal decree, vote of the people, decision of the council of elders), and the application of logic to those principles.
    – user6726
    Jun 8, 2016 at 4:26

2 Answers 2


There are several policy goals surrounding the age of criminal responsibility. One aspect is that by the age of criminal responsibility people have a sufficient awareness of societal norms and understanding of the wrongfulness of their conduct that they be eligible for criminal charges. Another aspect is that for people under the age of criminal responsibility, they may not respond to criminal charges and punishment in the same way as older people. That is, the criminal system may not be the most effective means of correction and rehabilitation of such young offenders.

There is no bright line that accurately captures these factors, and thus many jurisdictions have more than one step in transitioning from the incapable child to the fully capable adult. For example, in the US and Canada, juveniles/youth over the age of criminal consent but not yet 18 years old are generally not treated the same as adults.

The policy goals behind the age of consent relate to understanding of the consequences of sex, vulnerability to people in positions of power or influence, and protection of society's norms of purity.

There is no reason why these different policy goals would result in the same age threshold.


There is a matter of legal consent, and of force.

First, your second sentence is wrong. 16 is not the age "at which an individual is deemed legally competent to understand the notion of consent", it's the age at which they are deemed to be competent to understand the consequences of having sex with another person.

At a much lower age they should be competent to understand that they cannot force another person to do anything, including forcing them to have sex.

@Ilya: "All non-consensual sex is forced". No, because we are talking about legal consent, and not about the person consenting. A 14 year old can mentally and verbally consent and have unforced sex, but it doesn't count as legal consent and is therefore illegal. A 10 year old may not understand that it is wrong to give a person a bunch of flowers and have sex, but that 10 year old should understand that it is wrong to hold a knife at someone's throat and have sex.

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    But in not understanding the consequences of sex at 15, how can they understand the consequences of forced sex (a subset)? And surely if they understand the consequence of forced sex, then they understand consent with regards to themselves too - since then they would know when they are being forced.. Jun 7, 2016 at 12:42
  • Also, all non-consensual sex is forced, and arguably all consensual sex is not forced (safe words etc).. therefore, in understanding force, consent is understood too. (on the other hand if not all consensual sex is not forced, then force is not enough to determine rape, you still need an understanding of consent!) Jun 7, 2016 at 13:01
  • @ilya that is a question for maybe the cogsci stackexchange, but it is no longer a legal question.
    – user3851
    Jun 7, 2016 at 14:46
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    Also, your categorization of forced sex as simply a subset of sex is way oversimplified.
    – user3851
    Jun 7, 2016 at 14:48
  • If you can understand the consequences of force at age 10, then you can understand the consequences of forced sex at that age. Forced sex is a "subset" of force.
    – user6726
    Jun 7, 2016 at 15:53

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