Sex and the law deals with the regulation by law of human sexual activity. Sex laws vary from one place or jurisdiction to another, and have varied over time, and unlawful sexual acts are also called sex crimes.
- Possible enforcement
- Age of consent
- Extramarital sex
- Female genital mutilation
Some laws regulating sexual activity are intended to protect one or all participants, while others are intended to proscribe behavior that has been defined as a crime. For example, a law may proscribe unprotected sex if one person knows that he or she has a sexual disease or to protect a minor; or it may proscribe non-consensual sex, or because of a relationship between the participants, etc. In general, laws may proscribe acts which are considered either sexual abuse or behavior that societies consider to be inappropriate and against the social norms. Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual contact between two or more adults or two or more minors, and, depending on laws with regard to age of consent, sexual contact between an adult and a minor.
Sex crimes are forms of human sexual behavior that are crimes. Someone who commits one is said to be a sex offender. Some sex crimes are crimes of violence that involve sex. Others are violations of social taboos, such as incest, sodomy, indecent exposure or exhibitionism. There is much variation among cultures as to what is considered a crime or not, and in what ways or to what extent crimes are punished.
Western cultures are often far more tolerant of acts, such as oral sex, that have traditionally been held to be crimes in some cultures, but combine this with lesser tolerance for the remaining crimes. By contrast, many cultures with a strong religious tradition consider a far broader range of activities to be serious crimes.
As a general rule, the law in many countries often intervenes in sexual activity involving young or adolescent children below the legal age of consent, non-consensual deliberate displays or illicit watching of sexual activity, sex with close relatives (incest), harm to animals, acts involving the deceased (necrophilia), and also when there is harassment, nuisance, fear, injury, or assault of a sexual nature, or serious risk of abuse of certain professional relationships. Separately, the law usually regulates or controls the censorship of pornographic or obscene material as well. A rape charge can only be issued when a person(s) of any age does not provide consent for sexual activity.
The activities listed below carry a condition of illegality in some jurisdictions if acted upon, though they may be legally role-played between consenting partners of legal age:
A variety of laws aim to protect children by making various acts with children a sex crime. For example, the "corruption of minors" by introducing material or behaviors that are intended to groom a minor for future sexual conduct. The materials or behavior can involve sexual content but does not necessarily have to. Depending on the jurisdiction, this conduct can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. Sometimes these laws overlap with age of consent laws, laws preventing the exposure of children to pornography, laws making it a crime for a child to be involved in (or exposed to) certain sexual behaviors, and the production and ownership of child pornography (sometimes including simulated images). In some countries such as the UK, the age for child pornography is higher than the age of consent, hence child pornography laws also cover images involving consenting adults.
Sadomasochistic conduct among adults can fall into a legal grey area. Some jurisdictions criminalize some or all sadomasochistic acts, regardless of legal consent and impose liability for any injuries caused. (See Consent (BDSM)) Other jurisdictions permit sadomasochistic conduct so long as the participants consent to the conduct.
Age of consent
While the phrases "age of consent" or "statutory rape" typically do not appear in legal statutes, when used in relation to sexual activity, the age of consent is the minimum age at which a person is considered to be legally competent of consenting to engage in sexual acts. This should not be confused with the age of majority, age of criminal responsibility, or the marriageable age.
The age of consent varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The median seems to range from 16 to 18 years, but laws stating ages ranging from 9 to 21 do exist. In some jurisdictions, the age of consent takes account of a mental or functional age, so that victims can be of any chronological age if their mental age is below the age of consent.
Some jurisdictions forbid sexual activity outside of legal marriage completely. The relevant age may also vary by the type of sexual act, the sex of the actors, or other restrictions such as abuse of a position of trust. Some jurisdictions may make allowances for minors engaged in sexual acts with each other, rather than a hard and fast single age. Charges resulting from a breach of these laws may range from a relatively low-level misdemeanor such as "corruption of a minor", to "statutory rape" (which is considered equivalent to rape, both in severity and sentencing).
In some states, sex between members of the same sex, or between men, is illegal.
Sexual activity between family members or close relatives is often considered incest, which is illegal in many jurisdictions, though what constitutes an "incestuous relationship" varies by jurisdiction, and may depend on the type of sexual activity and whether the relationship is one of consanguinity, affinity or other relationship, such as by adoption. In law, the proscribed sexual activity is usually limited to sexual intercourse, though terminology varies, and which in some jurisdictions is limited to penile-vaginal sexual intercourse. Incestuous sexual activity, as defined by each jurisdiction, is usually unlawful irrespective of the consent of the parties and irrespective of their age. This prohibition usually also extends to the marriage of people in the proscribed incestuous relationships.
One author argued that use of particular language devices and rhetoric in the legislation surrounding these laws manipulates the viewer to automatically deem such sexual acts to be immoral and criminal. In this view, the law is attempting to morally control society, which is not one of the purposes of the law. This means that people will condemn those who partake in familial sexual activities, even if all parties are consenting adults.
Adultery is a crime in many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Oman, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Sudan, and Yemen.
Female genital mutilation
Custom and tradition are the most frequently cited reasons for female genital mutilation (FGM), with the practices often being performed to exert control over the sexual behavior of girls and women or as a perceived aesthetic improvement to the appearance of their genitalia. The World Health Organization (WHO) is one of many health organizations that have campaigned against the procedures on behalf of human rights, stating that "FGM has no health benefits" and that it is "a violation of the human rights of girls and women" and "reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes".
Most countries prohibit female genital mutilation, including prohibiting the procedure to be performed on its citizens and residents while outside their jurisdictions, and the New York State Penal Law lists female genital mutilation as a sexual offense.