The Age of Consent
The age of consent varies by state, but in California, the age of legal consent is 18. This means that legally, people 17 years old or younger cannot consent to sexual acts. Generally speaking, law enforcement does not investigate sexual acts between consenting partners under the age of 18, even though sexual acts are not necessarily legal.
The two places where it gets trickier are
A) when a parent or guardian of one of the youth is not okay with the relationship,
B) when one of the partners is 18 or older, and/or
C)when they are found having sex in a public place* (such as a car, at school, in a park, etc.)
In our experience youth are often shocked when they learn they can’t legally consent. We know teenagers are having sex, according to the CDC the average age of sexual debut between 2011 and 2015 in the US was about 17 years of age. Since we can’t ignore these facts, we like to make a distinction between legal and personal consent. Just because legal consent is out of teens reach does not mean that personal consent is not necessary, safer, and may influence the circumstances and charges considered in a legal case.
Those who understand that youth have sex will often ask, “But what about Romeo and Juliet laws?” This question refers to statutes held by many states that address situations in which two individuals who are close in age, and one of whom is not yet of legal age, engage in consensual sexual relations. The age difference allowed by Romeo and Juliet laws varies by state. Many people believe these laws exist here too, but California has no “Romeo and Juliet” laws or statutes.
In California, all sex between personally consenting minors is defined as Unlawful Sexual Intercourse (which many other states refer to as “statutory rape”) and carries legal penalties for the older party. The severity of an unlawful sexual intercourse charge in California is determined by the difference in age of the two involved parties. If the older party is less than 3 years older than the younger party they can be charged with a misdemeanor; and if they are 3 or more years older than the younger party, they can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony and serve time. That being said, Verity Educators and Advocates are not legal advisers and we recommend that curious parties refer to California Penal Code 261.5 or seek legal counsel for further guidance.
If we want to keep youth safe, we must give them the facts and communicate our values as parents, guardians, teachers, religious leaders, and other important adults in their lives so that they make informed choices about when to have sex, who they have sex with, and if they use protection against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
* Youth who are found having sex in a public space can also be charged with indecent exposure.
Survivors of all genders, sexes, ages, religions, races national origins, (dis)abilities, sexual orientations, etc. are welcome and valid at Verity. If you or someone you love is a survivor of sexual violence, please do not hesitate to call our hotline at (707) 545-7273 any time, day or night. We are here for you!