Fundamentally, I'm in favor of letting teleiophiles (ordinary folks) figure out the right age of consent. They don't have any apparent vested interest in the outcome and can concentrate without distraction on the best interests of the children -- the right mix of autonomy and protection. For the purposes of this discussion, I am focusing not on prepubescents but those who have started puberty and have a definite interest (in their minds at least) in partner sex. I think adult/young-teen sex should remain illegal, but I've found the arguments aren't as clear as I might have thought.

One surprise is the central place in the debate of this question: What do you think of two willing 13-year-olds having sex?

If you feel that as some absolute moral principle, minors cannot consent to sex, then they can't consent to sex with each other either. So I think you have few couple options. You can find that they are both guilty of a serious crime and do whatever you do with a 13-year-old who is guilty of a serious crime. You could argue that if it's a boy and girl, the boy is more likely to be at fault, based on common patterns about who is more likely to be the initiator. Or you could also feel that each of them is the victim of a crime, but that their partner is too young to be held responsible for committing this crime. Such sex is very common, and very commonly viewed as not a big deal, even when such 13-year-olds become adults and reflect on their past. Holding very common behaviors between willing partners to be seriously criminal should give a person indigestion.

I personally just can't see that the state has any business getting involved in such sex between young teens. If we were counseling the young teens, we might feel it is unwise in many cases. But a great many unwise things are not crimes. With that as perspective, the winning argument against legalizing adult-teen sex is simply a social policy decision: We believe that allowing this would lead to much more harm than good. My current guess for an ideal age of consent is 16, with an exception for younger ages if the two parties are within 5 years of each other in age.

A parallel social policy decision is the US prohibition on drinking by anyone under 21. We let 18-year-olds vote, sign contracts, and serve in the military. They surely are not in any profound sense unable to consent to drink alcohol. But the US has enacted the restriction as a matter of social policy. There is no major political opposition based on the principle of not restricting the rights of 18-year-olds. The policy is based on costs and benefits, arising from the claim that a great many drunk-driving deaths were caused by drivers aged 18 to 20. (It might not actually be a good policy for other reasons, but that's a separate question.)

Social policies also allow for exceptions. We don't feel morally outraged if someone as young as 12 has a glass of wine with the family at dinner. Nor do we feel outraged if a 20-year-old gets drunk as long as they don't drive. If someone does drive drunk, they are committing the same crime whether they are 16 or 76. Similarly, if a man of 25 and a willing boy or girl of 14 have sex, we don't need to feel outraged.

If either party in a sexual encounter is unwilling, we do feel outraged and call it rape or assault regardless of age. If the older party used false pretenses or coerced the younger in any way, we might feel that it was most definitely wrong.

The social policy view, minus the moral outrage, also allows for the idea that if the younger party does not come to feel that they have been wronged, there is perhaps no need to prosecute the case.

How you feel about two willing 13-year-olds having sex is a key question to clarifying how you feel about adult-teen sex.

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