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.
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. Depending on state law, 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 may not be charged with statutory rape or be punished as harshly as a much older adult. These close-in-age exemption laws, sometimes known as Romeo and Juliet laws, may 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 may 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.
There are Always Exceptions
Even for states with a single age of consent, there may be exceptions. In New Jersey, for example, the general age of consent is 16. However, a young adult between the age of 16 and 18 cannot give consent to engaging in sexual intercourse with someone who has supervisory or disciplinary power over the young person. That person might be a teacher, probation officer, law enforcement official, hospital worker, counselor or a youth group leader. Any of these people will have committed a crime when they engage in sexual conduct with an individual they have authority over, even if that person is above the age of consent.
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 may face legal consequences such as jail time.
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.