When sexual activity is involved, the most important factor is whether both parties have consented. This is important both morally and legally. In the US, the age of consent is defined as the legal age when a person is considered of sufficient maturity to consent to sexual activity. The age of consent varies by state (see Age of Consent by State chart below).
Sexual activity with a person who is under a state’s age of consent is considered to be statutory rape. This means the person has had sexual contact with a person who legally cannot consent to the act. As rape is sex without consent, someone who violates the age of consent law for their state has committed a type of rape. There is no requirement of force for this crime to be prosecuted under various state laws. Also note that it generally is irrelevant whether you ‘thought’ the victim was old enough to consent to sexual activity.
The specific age of consent for each state is highlighted later in this article, but as of 2015, the following applies to age of consent in the United States:
- The highest age of consent is 18; the lowest is 16
- 30 states set 16 as the general age of consent
- 8 states set the age of consent at 17
- 12 states set the age of consent at 18
- The age-16 states are generally smaller, so less than half the US population lives in these states
- 60% of the US population lives in states that establish the age at 16 or 17
- The age of consent was 10-12 for most US states for most of the 1800s, but generally rose to between 16 and 18 in 1920.
- The last state to increase the age of consent from 14 to 16 was Hawaii in 2001
Some may argue that the age of consent being 16 or 17 is low, but the age of consent is lower in many civilized countries:
- South Korea and Japan: 13
- Austria, Germany, Italy and Portugal: 14
- Denmark, France and Sweden: 15
Age of Consent for Males and Females
In some states, the age of consent for males and females is not the same. Some states have an exception to the age of consent, if two people are close to the same age. These are often referred to as Romeo and Juliet laws. This is usually a two or three year different. In most states, punishments are more severe if one of the persons is much older than the other. However, if both parties are over the age of consent for the state, the age difference is irrelevant.
Some states make a distinction between a male and female having sex, and sex between two females or males. In many states, homosexual activity was illegal until recently, regardless of age of anyone involved. In other states, the age of consent for homosexual sex is higher, but it is not completely illegal.
Age of Consent for Homosexuals
The US Supreme Court has ruled that laws that prohibit homosexual sex are not constitutional. They may not be enforced by any state. However, some states still have laws that prohibit homosexual sex. Thus, it is not clear what the age of consent is for homosexual acts in those states. It is possible that the state court, if it did not attempt to enforce an unconstitutional law, would default to the age of consent for the state for normal, heterosexual intercourse, but this is not guaranteed.
Below is the current age of consent in all US states. Note that some states have a close-in-age exemption, known as a Romeo and Juliet law, but not all do. For example, under Texas law, if someone is over 17 and has consensual sex with someone under 17, but there is no more than an age difference of three years between them, this is not considered statutory rape. However, Texas law forbids any person from engaging in any type of sexual activity with a person under 13. That is the age at which a person is under no circumstances able to provide consent to sexual activity.
Age of Consent by State
Below is the age of consent for each US state. Also listed is whether the state has a Romeo and Juliet law, and what the maximum age difference can be between the parties for the sexual activity to be legal under state law. If there is no Romeo and Juliet law, anyone who violates the age of consent law can be prosecuted, even if they are only a few years older than the minor.
|State||Age||Romeo and Juliet Law|
|Alabama||16||Y – 2 years|
|Alaska||16||Y – 3 years|
|Arizona||18||Y – 2 years|
|Arkansas||16||Y – 3 years|
|California||18||N – 0 years|
|Colorado||17||Y – 4 years|
|Connecticut||16||Y – 2 years|
|Delaware||18||N – 0 years|
|District of Columbia||16||N – 0 years|
|Florida||18||N – 0 years|
|Georgia||16||N – 0 years|
|Hawaii||16||Y 5 years|
|Idaho||18||N – 0 years|
|Illinois||17||N – 0 years|
|Indiana||16||N – 0 years|
|Iowa||16||Y – 4 years|
|Kansas||16||N – 0 years|
|Kentucky||16||N – 0 years|
|Louisiana||17||Y – 3 years|
|Maine||16||Y – 5 years|
|Maryland||16||Y – 4 years|
|Massachusetts||16||N – 0 years|
|Michigan||16||N – 0 years|
|Minnesota||16||Y – 2 years|
|MIssissippi||16||Y – 2 years|
|Missouri||17||N – 0 years|
|Montana||16||N – 0 years|
|Nebraska||16||N – 0 years|
|Nevada||16||N – 0 years|
|New Hampshire||16||N – 0 years|
|New Jersey||16||Y – 4 years|
|New Mexico||16||Y – 4 years|
|New York||17||N – 0 years|
|North Carolina||16||Y – 4 years|
|North Dakota||18||N – 0 years|
|Ohio||16||N – 0 years|
|Oklahoma||16||N – 0 years|
|Oregon||18||Y – 3 years|
|Pennsylvania||16||Y – 4 years|
|Rhode Island||16||N – 0 years|
|South Carolina||16||N – 0 years|
|South Dakota||16||Y – 3 years|
|Tennessee||18||Y – 4 years|
|Texas||17||Y – 3 years|
|Utah||18||Y – 10 years|
|Vermont||16||N – 0 years|
|Virginia||18||N – 0 years|
|Washington||16||Y – 2 years|
|West Virginia||16||Y – 4 years|
|Wisconsin||18||N – 0 years|
|Wyoming||16||Y – 4 years|
Punishments for Violations of Age of Consent Laws
Charges for violating an age of consent law can vary by state. It could be a minor misdemeanor in some cases, and a statutory rape felony charge and required registration as a sex offender in other states. Whatever state in which the violation occurs, the following factors will determine what the criminal punishment and charge will be:
- Age of offender
- Age of victim
- Context of the sexual relations
- What sexual acts were performed
Some states find that having sex with a person less than 12 or 14 is a first degree felony, while sex with a person older but under the age of consent could be a misdemeanor or a lower level felony. Some states have tougher penalties when the defendant is a certain number of years above the age of the victim, while others have statutes where just the age of the defendant, such as above 21, can make it a higher level offense.
To get an idea of the potential punishments for violating the age of consent law, reviewing specific state laws is helpful. In California, the age of consent is 18. Anyone under the age of 18 is not legally able to consent to sexual activities. State law dictates such activity can be charged as statutory rape.
Note that California does not have a Romeo and Juliet Law. It is possible for two people under 18 to be charged for statutory rape although this is rare. There also are no protections for those having sexual relations where one person is 17 and the other is 18 or 19.
California has seven laws on the books that relate to statutory rape and sexual abuse that can be used to prosecute violations of the age of consent laws. These laws are as follows:
- Aggravated sexual assault of a child: Felony charge with 15 years to life in prison punishment.
- Forcible act of sexual penetration: Receive 8, 10 or 12 years in state prison
- Oral copulation: Felony charge with 1-10 years in state prison
- Penetration by foreign object: Felony charge with 3, 6 or 8 years in state prison
- Rape: Felony charge with 7, 9 or 11 years in state prison
- Sexual acts with child 10 or younger: Felony charge with 15 years to life in prison
- Unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor: Misdemeanor or felony charge with up to one year in county jail
In Virginia, the age of consent is 18, but a close in age exemption exists for teens who are aged 15-17 to engage in sexual relations with each other.
Virginia has nine statutory sexual abuse charges on its books that are used to prosecute age of consent violations. These statutes are as follows:
- Adultery and fornication by persons forbidden to marry: This is a class 3 felony and is punishable by 5-20 years in prison.
- Aggravated sexual battery: This is a felony and is punishable by one to 20 years in prison.
- Carnal knowledge of certain minors: This is a class 6 felony and is punishable by one to 20 years in prison.
- Carnal knowledge of a child between 13 and 15: This is a class 4 felony and is punishable by two to 10 years in prison.
- Object sexual penetration: This is a felony and is punishable by life in prison.
- Penetration of mouth of child with lascivious intent: This is a class 1 misdemeanor and is punishable by 12 months in prison.
Most other US states have similar statutes; at what age these laws can apply depends upon the age of consent laws for that state. Most states also will require you to register for life as a sex offender. This can make finding employment and a place to live very challenging.
Defenses to an Age of Consent Violation
If your state does not have a Romeo and Juliet law, or if the age difference between you and your partner is too great, you will need to consider other defenses to the charges. Depending upon the state and case specifics, you may be able to work with your defense attorney on one of these defenses:
- Marriage: Statutory rape charges are consensual in nature, but an exception is made in some states for married couples. In Texas, for example, if you are under 17 and are the spouse of the defendant, the age of consent law is waived and charges cannot be filed.
- Evidence: The state prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that you engaged in statutory rape or a similar crime. It is possible for a skilled criminal defense attorney in some cases to cast doubt on evidence, including witness testimony. There are cases on the books where an adult was wrongly charged by a minor of statutory rape to get revenge or get back at that person.
- Rape by fraud: Some states accept a defense that shows the plaintiff attempted to defraud the defendant into having sex for gain or retaliation.
- Medical: Texas law states that if the conduct consisted of medical care for the child and did not have contact with the sexual organs or anus, this can be a possible defense.
Age of Consent and Statutory Rape Statute of LImitations
Generally, US states do not have a statute of limitations for bringing charges of rape or statutory rape, as well as other related age of consent violations.
- Age of Consent by State. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ageofconsent.net/states
- Statutory Rape Laws in the US. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/01/statutory-rape-laws-in-the-u-s/?utm_term=.2b09ed424718
- Rape Statute of LImitations. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/rape-statutes-of-limitation-maps-table/