Age of consent is the age at which an individual is deemed legally competent to consent to engage in sexual activities. This minimum age varies by state, and having sex with someone under the age of consent is considered to be a criminal act. Some jurisdictions make allowances for minors engaging in sexual activities with each other, though there may be guidelines as to the age difference. To explore this concept, consider the age of consent definition.
Definition of Age of Consent
- The legal age at which a person is legally competent to consent to engage in sexual activities.
1275 English law: Statute of Westminster 1275
What is Age of Consent
Historically, society’s accepted age of consent for marriage and sexual activity was left to the family to decide. Prior to the 12th century, society had no concept of childhood. Children were thought of as small adults, and expected to take on adult responsibilities. Ancient Greek, Roman, and other societies generally accepted the onset of puberty to signify that the individual, whether boy or girl, was ready for marriage.
The first written age of consent law found by historians comes from England in 1275. This Westminster 1 statute made it a crime to “ravish” a maiden younger than the age of marriage, with or without her consent. The accepted age of marriage at the time was 12 years. Christianity made it clear to its followers that sexual relations outside marriage was forbidden, and children were commonly held responsible, and punished, for submitting to sexual acts with an adult.
The American colonists initially followed English tradition, which commonly recognized marriage at ages as young as 9 years, in the subject of marriage and sex. Enforcement of consent laws based on the participants’ actual ages were not common until the 19th century, because proof of age and date of birth were not readily available.
Modern Age of Consent
The age of consent is the age at which, according to law, a person may legally consent to engage in sexual activity. The actual term age of consent does not appear in the laws of most jurisdictions, though federal law sets this age at 12 to 16 years, and most states have similar ages. Age of consent in the United States refers to a person’s chronological age, but in some cases, a court may consider the person’s mental age, in determining whether he or she has been taken advantage of. This means that the mental capacity of a person may leave hi or her unable to legally consent to sexual activities, regardless of chronological age. Having sexual intercourse with a person under the age of consent is a crime referred to as “statutory rape.”
What is Statutory Rape
Statutory rape occurs when an individual over the legal age of consent engages in sexual activities with another person who is under the legal age of consent as specified by state law. Every state has statutory rape laws, though the specific definitions and punishments vary greatly. The term statutory rape can be misleading, as it does not refer to forced acts of sex, or coercion. Rather, statutory rape would not be a criminal act at all if both individuals engaging in sexual activities were above the legal age of consent.
Legal Age of Consent
According to federal law, the legal age of consent is between 12 and 16 years. Having sex with a minor between the ages of 12 and 16, who is at least four years younger, is a crime. This would mean that a 17-year-old boy engaging in sexual activity with a 13-year-old girl is a crime. If the girl was 15 years old, however, it is not. Each jurisdiction takes a slightly different approach to determining age of consent, which as the actual age ranging from 10 to 18 years. Many states consider the relative ages of the participants.
In all states, a person under the age of consent who engages in sexual activities is considered the victim, and the older partner is the perpetrator. The legal age of consent may also vary in each jurisdiction depending on the type of sexual act, the gender of the parties, and other special circumstances.
Romeo and Juliet Laws
Many statutory rape cases involve two teens engaging in sex with one another. Some involve one partner who is technically an adult, at age 18, with another who is a minor, though the two may have dated for a period of months or years. The age of consent laws in most jurisdictions were strict and inflexible, giving prosecutors no room for allowance of teenage lovers.
Many states, in an effort to address this issue, updated their statutes to reflect the true intent of statutory rape laws: to prevent young people from being manipulated into sex by adults. The new statutes, commonly referred to as “Romeo and Juliet laws,” take into account the actual and relative ages of the participants. These laws not only specify a legal age of consent, but also enforce a maximum age difference between the youths. Not all states have Romeo and Juliet laws.
Age of Consent by State
Each state has its own consent of age, but it typically ranges from 16 to 18 years. Many states also have an age gap law. These laws make sexual activities legal, even if the person is under the age of consent as long as the age gap does not exceed the guidelines. This is known as “Romeo and Juliet Laws.” Other states imposed lesser charges if the two parties have a close age gap.
In Texas, the age of consent is 17 with a 3-year age gap. Mary is 14 years old, which is under the legal consenting age in the state. She engages in sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, aged 16 at the time of the act. Though neither of the teens are of legal consenting age, there is only a two-year gap between the two, making the activity legal.
The following table shows each state and the age of consent according to the law. It also shows the age differences that are allowed by the state’s Romeo and Juliet law, if applicable in the state.
|Age of Consent
Teen Charged with Statutory Rape of His Girlfriend
In 2015, 18-year old Dalton Hayes took his 13-year old girlfriend, Cheyenne Phillips, on a 12-day, multi-state crime spree. The pair disappeared in January 2015, apparently living in various abandoned homes in their state of Kentucky. They stole cars and cashed stolen checks to fund their spree, as police followed them out of Kentucky, and through South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. This “teen Bonnie and Clyde” team was finally arrested in Florida.
Hayes was charged with burglary, theft, custodial interference, and statutory rape in the state of Kentucky. He told police that Phillips had lied to him about her age, saying she was 18 years old, and that she had showed him a fake ID. Hayes said Phillips had posted on her Facebook page that they were engaged, and told him she was pregnant. Because Phillips was only 13, well under Kentucky’s age of consent, Hayes was charged with first- and second-degree rape, in addition to the charges of theft, burglary, criminal mischief, custodial interference, and criminal trespassing.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
- Consent – To approve, permit, or agree.
- Jurisdiction – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Lesser Charges – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
- Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.