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Teens, Sex and the Law

Statutory Rape and Teen Relationships

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Teenage girl (16-17) looking away
Bernd Opitz/Taxi/Getty Images
Statutory rape laws are strange things. What's permissible in some states means jail time in others, and enforcement is unpredictable. In most states, the age of consent is 18, although in Nebraska, it's 19 and in Puerto Rico, it's 21. But when that law is violated, it's anyone's guess what happens next. In Georgia, for example, a 17-year-old was sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old. He spent two years of that sentence in prison until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the punishment “grossly disproportionate" to the crime and set him free.

While statutory rape and similar laws were written to protect children from abuse by older, predatory partners, teenagers can get caught in the crossfire. Any sexual activity involving teens and children under the age of consent is considered rape, even when both partners are willing. In short, Romeo and Juliet would have been in big trouble.

When such cases hit the courts, it's generally because the activity has been discovered in such a way as to make ignorance legally actionable, or because someone is pushing a case through. Teachers and school counselors, for example, are legally obligated to report child abuse, which includes underage sexual activity and molestation, to authorities. Or, a family member may bring charges because he or she disapproves of the relationship.

These restrictions may sound archaic, but the consequences can be severe. The average age of first intercourse in the United States is 17, which means that more than half of the teen population has already broken the law, and many of those relationships involve 18- and 19-year-olds. That's an important distinction, because just as state laws differ on the age of consent, their sentences also vary according to the age difference between partners. A statutory rape conviction as an adult can mean jail or prison time, and the requirement that they register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

For more information on age of consent laws in your state, contact your local bar association.

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