Why can't children consent to having sex?

I already know of many reasons why it is said that children cannot legitimately consent to having sex, but I’m sure that I’m not aware of some and would like to hear any reasons you can think of, with as thorough of an explanation as you can provide.

I think the GQ answer is because the law says so (at least in the U.S.). Anything beyond that gets into opinion/speculation.

This topic is more appropriate for Great Debates than General Questions.

General Questions Moderator

I’m not intending on discussing the validity of any arguments made: all that I want to know are some reasons why this claim is made, so I thought it would make more sense to be in General Questions.

The obvious answer is of course “they can’t because the courts say so”, but I asked about legitimacy because I am more interested in hearing about justifications for the current state of things, such as children being incapable of making informed decisions.

They aren’t considered to be legally competent, just as they aren’t considered competent to sign a contract. And if we are talking about prepubescent children, then they physically and psychologically aren’t ready, law or not. It starts becoming more of a gray area the older they get; insisting that a pair of 16 year olds can’t consent to have sex with each other is rather insulting to them, as well as being practically unenforceable.

Theoretically because we as a society have decided that they are unable to fully grasp all the consequences of their actions. Children are not able to make that sort of decision properly. As Americans in particular are extremely prudish about adolescent sexuality, combined with the long lasting ramifications of early sexual activity, we simply made it illegal for minors in general. A better question to ask is “How do we know when an adolescent is ready to consent?”

FTR FOr the purposes of this thread, I’m defining child as under thirteen, adolescent as 13 to sixteen, and anything above that as an adult; law nonwithstanding.

Part of the reasoning I assume is we hide or try to hide in some cases sex from children. Their world is devoid of sex. In our society sex does not exist for children. So they can’t consent to what does not exist for them.

Figured I’d avoid the rush.

Pit Thread here

Well there are some legit reasons.

First of all kids are obviously capable of reproducing long before we as a society think it’s a good idea.

A child under 18 is probably not going to be able to properly support a child. Therefore this is a legitimate reason to deny them the opportunity to have sex.

Of course the counterargument to this is, there are lots of people OVER 18 who have kids and can’t properly care for them.

This may have validity in reality but at least from a legal standpoint they are able to get work and care for them.

You also don’t want to start an underclass of poor children. When you allow people to consent to sex, your in a sense allowing them to have children. This may be fine, but you have to take into consideration the child who is an innocent party to this.

This is the reason we give welfare to irresponsible people who keep reproducing even though they can’t take care of the children they have. We can fault the parents for not being responsible but the kids are blameless and need our help, thus welfare.

Because they don’t fully understand the harm it can bring

Children do not have the capacity for future-oriented thought and are not sufficiently educated to make decisions on sex, drugs and politics. There are a host of studies out there that show significant difference in a teenagers’ brain vs a mid-20’s brain, cognitive and problem solvinig abilities, emotional control, etc.

Because of potential power imbalances, for one. A child is very easily persuaded by authority figures (parents, relatives, older friends and family members, religious figures, sporting or community leaders). I find it very easy to imagine an unscrupulous baseball coach or priest grooming children to do things to each other in front of him. Or an unscrupulous parent grooming their child to be a prostitute for other children. Or an unscrupulous 20 year old guy grooming a 12 year old girl to have sex with him. And all the children in these scenarios have been groomed to think they’re consenting.

Children tend to be unreliable witnesses, as well, and the younger they are, the worse they witness. So it would be hard to get the truth out of them after the fact.

I think this is the most convincing argument, to me. This is AFAIK also the reason given (or justification*) that consenting minors can (in some countries at least) legally have sex with each other, but not with significantly older adults.

  • I’m unsure how much of these kinds of laws are down to “it feels icky” (which, by the way, is not a completely stupid reason to look at things doubtfully, at least not as a starting point) and how much is real reasoned argument.

We haven’t decided that any more than we’ve decided that pi equals 3.1415926 etc. We have observed that. It’s as obvious as the fact that the vast, vast, vast majority of 9-year-olds cannot be trusted to drive a car.

I will likewise say that the issue of two sixteen-year-olds having sex is completely different than an adult doing anything sexual with a pre-teen.

Posted in wrong thread.


This Pit thread from December, about “boy-play” parties in Afghanistan, made me wonder. Apparently this is a “pre-Islamic” Afghan tradition banned by the Taliban, which would make it at least twelve centuries old. There must be a lot of adult men in Afghanistan who once were bacha boys. Has anyone studied how they feel about it now, whether it is a horrible or a pleasant memory to them, what lasting psychological effect it has had on them, etc.?


Children are incapable of taking responsibility for certain actions . . . not only regarding sex, but also regarding nutrition, education, medical care, shelter, emotional and spiritual growth and many other aspects of their lives.

This is true, but it’s not the point. It’s not about taking responsibility; it’s about what they can handle and cannot handle, and about how easy it is to exploit them. Sexual experiences can be devastating and confusing even for adults. Children are foolish, credulous, and weak, and thus far more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Sure, but like anything else there are exceptions. However, it IS our decision to moderate their interactions. Biology and the universe don’t care much about children having sex, or whom they do it with. It isn’t some sort of law of nature. it’s a societal norm, and a damn good one.

Agreed; since it wasn’t mentioned in the OP and the first couple of responses were legal technicalities I thought it prudent to define my position.

Much as some would like to think different, sex and emotion/attachment/love are tightly bound up in each other through a million years of evolution.

Listen to all the songs on the radio; they aren’t about having sex (except maybe rap) they are about the joy of loving and the pain of losing love. Sex messes with your mind, big time. Many adults are not ready to deal with the emotional ups and downs of relationships. Younger people certainly have no clue how to deal with this sometimes. So for the same reason we don’t let them get married, or try to keep them from any other extreme emotional investment that may result in a major hurt (like expecting daddy to actually show up at their dance recital), we try to keep youngsters from sex.

Plus, there’s the exploitation angle, the medical issues of early pregnancies, and whether they really understand what they could be getting into, whether they are able to determine when they are being fed a line by someone out for a good time, etc. Some adults have difficulty with these - younger people even more so.