Laws on Underage Dating

By Claire Gillespie - Updated March 13, 2018

If you're concerned about breaking laws on underage dating, the first thing to know is that no such laws exist. However, you should be aware of statutory rape laws if you're dating someone younger than the legal age of consent in your state. Such laws are there to punish adults who take sexual advantage of minors. If your date is below the legal age of consent, you could be charged with statutory rape, even if the sex is consensual.

Tip

If underage dating involves sexual intercourse, state statutory rape laws apply. If you are charged with having sex with a person who is younger than the statutory age of consent and are found guilty, you face jail.

Statutory Rape Laws

Statutory rape is sexual intercourse with a person who is younger than the statutory age of consent, as determined by state law. This applies even if the parties are in a long-term romantic relationship or the sex is consensual. Statutory rape laws vary by state, with the majority of states setting the legal age of consent at 16. Other states set the age of consent in the range of 14 to 18. The minor or the minor’s parent, guardian or anyone who is involved with the minor professionally, such as a school counselor or a coach, can report allegations of statutory rape to the police.

Age of Consent

Age of consent is the age at which a person chooses to take part in sexual activity without it being considered statutory rape. In the U.S., the general age of consent is 16, 17 or 18, depending on the state. However, some states have lower ages of consent under certain circumstances. For example, in Iowa a person may consent to sex at age 14 provided their partner is no more than 48 months older.

Romeo and Juliet Laws

Most statutory rape laws exist to punish an adult who takes sexual advantage of a minor, not to punish two people close in age who have consensual sex. This means an adult who is only a couple of years older than the minor will usually not be charged with statutory rape or punished as harshly as a much older adult. These so-called Romeo and Juliet laws often reduce the severity of the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor; reduce the penalty to a fine, probation or community service; and eliminate the requirement that the convicted adult register as a sex offender. Punishment depends on state law. For example, in New Jersey, the age of consent is 16, but individuals who are 13 or older can legally engage in sexual activity if their partner is less than four years older than they are. In California, it's a misdemeanor to have sex with someone younger than 18 if the offender is less than three years older, while someone more than three years older could be charged with a felony.

About the Author

Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.

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