Sex, cigarettes and alcohol: what is a safe age?

Imagine getting hitched to someone 5 times your age. Or being offered your first puff of a cigarette at the age of 9.

Growing up in a sheltered and relatively conservative nation may have caused many of us to be oblivious to the nonchalant attitudes other countries have toward protecting their children. To us Singaporeans, age is more than just a means to track our physical growth. It has been our protector and at times, even a cause for celebration.

But in the many parts of the world that disregard the significance of one’s age, children lay open and vulnerable to vices and traditions that are forced upon them by malicious intent or unfortunate circumstances.

In such places, age ain’t nothing but a number.


In Singapore, the legal age of consent (the minimum age to be legally permitted to engage in sexual activities) is 16. But in Nigeria, it is legal for you to have sex once you reach the age of 11 — imagine that, an innocent Primary 5 kid doing “what mommy and daddy does in the bedroom”.


Japan’s legal age of consent in some areas is only one year older than Nigeria’s, which is odd for a developed country. However, by delving deeper into their history, Japan’s slightly more flippant attitude when it comes to sex seems to stem from its rampant child prostitution post World War II. Even now, Tokyo has a totally legal “schoolgirl alley” where men pay to hang out with underage girls.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bahrain has an age of consent of 21, the highest legal age for sex in the world.

While the average age of consent worldwide lies in the 16-18 range, some countries practice the Romeo and Juliet Law (the close-in-age exemption). This exemption allows the underaged to hook up as long as their age gap is within a permissible range set by the authorities, which differs for each country (up to 10 years in some cases!).

For example, in Colorado, where the legal age to copulate is 17 but this law allows 16-year-olds to engage in sexual intercourse with partners who are less than 10 years older (which means that a 16-year-old can have sex with a 25-year-old). Minors 15 and below are also permitted to engage in sexual congress with those less than 4 years older… makes you wonder what that age of consent is for, right?


Some countries don’t even set an age of consent because marriage is legally required before sexual intercourse is allowed, which is the case for Iran. However, by the Iranian religious law (Sharia Law), the legal age of marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. The same Act even allows children below the legal age to tie the knot with the consent of their father or the permission of a court judge.

The same applies for Yemen, where child brides are exceedingly popular. Just a few years back, an 8-year-old child bride died from internal bleeding and vaginal rupture after her wedding night with her 40-year-old husband. This incident sparked worldwide outrage but activist groups are still in the midst of trying to end child marriage traditions in Yemen and other strictly religious countries.

Aren’t you glad that the legal age to marry in Singapore is 21? Although with a special license, we can actually walk down the aisle at 18, or even 16 if you are a Muslim.
Joining in matrimony is not as easy for homosexual couples though. Gay marriages are illegal in Singapore. Although if you have undergone a sex change, you may still get to marry (as long as both are not the same sex).
The highest legal age for marriage in the world is 22, for the citizens of China.


The legal age to smoke a cigarette is much more lenient all around the globe — some countries don’t even have an age limit for it! Nevertheless, the lowest stipulated age limit is 14 in places such as Iraq and Egypt, which still seems ridiculously low when you’re from a country where the legal age to take a puff is about to be raised from 18 to 21 in the next couple of years. Currently, only Japan has the oldest age for legal smoking, at 20.


If by now you still don’t think age is merely a number, this section will definitely change your mind: the average age for prostitution is 13, which means that children younger than 13 are being sold as hookers. Yes, the legal age for prostitution (in countries that allow it) may be 18, but laws all over the world are lax enough to allow such loopholes.


Similar to smoking, there is no minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in places such as Cambodia and Indonesia.
Surprisingly, much of the U.S. has the MLDA as high as 21! That probably explains why college frat boys are so big on downing keg towers — to openly celebrate their first taste of inebriation.


Some of you might sigh in pity at this, but several countries such as Pakistan consider it illegal to consume alcohol at any age due to religious restrictions… which means no Flaming Lamborghinis… or Jägerbombs…


In Singapore, you have to be at least 18 years old before you can buy booze and proceed to get hammered. But chugging in public places between 10.30 pm to 7 am might just cause you to wake up in jail. With a massive hangover.

By Rachel Lim