Couple EmbracingAt some point, most teens end up dating someone who is a little older or younger than them. But when that age gap widens, teens can be putting themselves or their partner in danger of legal (and emotional) consequences if the relationship involves sexual contact. This week we’re going to take a look at the legal implications of the age of consent and statutory rape.

In the United States, the most common age of consent is 16, although in some states, it is 17 or 18. This means that someone under the age of 16 cannot legally give consent to sexual contact with an adult, while once a teen turns 16 they can consent to sex with anyone they choose (with a few exceptions, such as teachers, foster parents, and supervisors.)

An important caveat to this rule occurs when two teens around the same age have sexual contact. A 15-year-old having sex with a 15-year old is not a prosecutable offense. However, once there is an age gap, it gets a bit confusing; you can access the legal details here. Basically, it is illegal to have sexual contact with: a 12-year-old if the other person is more than 2 years older; a 12-to-14 year old  if the other person is more than 3 years older; a 14-to-16 year old if the other person is more than 4 years older. These crimes can be labeled as child rape or child molestation, and they are felonies. Anyone found guilty of these crimes will be labeled a sex offender, including minors.

Teens tend to overestimate their maturity and ability to deal with adult situations. To a teen, an older person finding them attractive is not alarming; it may even serve to demonstrate to the teen how mature and desirable they are. The older person in the relationship may believe that they have found that unusual young teen who is wise beyond their years and can make an equal partner in the relationship. I can say this from experience, as I dated a 19-year-old when I was 15. I was thrilled with how mature I must be, and he swore that he would normally never date someone so young, but I was much older than my years. (After we  broke up, his next two girlfriends were also 15; we must have been a particularly mature cohort.)

Can some teens be unusually mature? Sure. Some older teens and young adults can be unusually immature, too. But the fact remains that any sexual relationship that breaks the laws above can end with one partner being labeled a sex offender, possibly for the rest of his or her life.

A good way to broach this subject with your teen is to gauge their views on it. Sit down, tell them about the laws, and ask what they think. If they think the laws are unnecessary, or that they’re too strict, start gauging where their comfort level lies. Is it okay for an 18-year-old to have sex with a 12-year-old? (That should be an obvious question.) Start closing the age gap. Talk about different ages, and see what they would do differently.

Talk about how having sexual contact with someone much younger than them is illegal, it is wrong, and it is sexual assault. Explain how the adolescent brain has different capacity at different ages. Even when someone much younger may seem like they are able to give full consent, they can’t. It is like someone very drunk agreeing to sexual activity; they are not capable of making that decision. Explain that “sexual contact” is not just vaginal or anal sex; it includes oral sex and touching as well.

If someone much older wants to have sexual contact with them, that is also wrong and they should seriously question why someone that much older wants a younger partner. It may be that your teen is unusually mature, or it may be that this older person prefers younger partners. Talk about why that might be. (If your teen is 16 or above, it’s not illegal for them to have sexual contact with a much older person, but feel free to give them your views on that as well.)

Explain to them what it means to be labeled as a sex offender, including publicly available registration, and limited educational, job, and living opportunities. Remind your teen that even if they are in a situation where they think the law shouldn’t apply to them, it still does.

Hopefully this is an issue you and your teen will only have to deal with in the abstract, and you won’t have to deal with the pain of your teen being involved in statutory rape. But getting it out into the open, and talking about why it’s an issue, may make the different between a hasty decision, and a smarter one. It’s hard to convince a teen when they are already madly in love with an older/ younger person that it’s a bad idea; if they have the knowledge beforehand, they may  be able to rein in their emotions.

Part 1: The Steubenville Incident

Part 2: Drinking and Drugs

Part 4: Trusting Your Gut

Part 5: Developmentally Delayed Teens

Part 6: Sexual Assault Within A Relationship

Part 7: Changing the Culture, One Teen at a Time

Part 8: The Media’s Response to the Steubenville Convictions