Age of Consent Laws: When Does Yes Mean Yes?

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Criminal defense attorney Tim Martin explains why the "age of consent" – the age when, in the eyes of the law, a boy or girl is recognized as mature enough to knowingly consent to sex – is a potential legal minefield both in the US and around the world.

Image of handcuffed woman who has "love" tattooed on her hands

Love is ageless... or is it?

Anyone considering entering into a romantic relationship with an individual under the age of 18 might be well advised to do a little research first - or consult a criminal defense attorney!

Joe and Jane are in the middle of a sexual encounter when the police burst in after someone has alerted the authorities.

Will Joe get arrested? Will Jane? Will anyone?

The answer is as clear as mud – it depends.

On what, you ask? The list is long, but here are the most vital considerations:

-How old were the participants?

  • In what state (or country) did the encounter take place?
  • How close in age were the participants?
  • Was one of the participants in a position of power or authority over the other participant?
  • Were they married? If so, at what age were they married?

... and the list could go on. That's because all societies struggle with sexual issues in general, and sexual issues with young people, in particular. In a federal system, such as in the U.S., each state has formulated their own laws and regulations of sex among people under the age of 18. This has produced a crazy quilt of possible outcomes in the situation described above. For example:

If both Joe and Jane are 16 in the state of Illinois, they could both be prosecuted for criminal sexual abuse.. Amazingly, this is true even if they were married to each other. However, if both Joe and Jane were in Arkansas, and they were both 16, they would not be committing a crime because they would be protected by a so-called "Romeo & Juliet" law, which shields lovers who are close in age (in this case, no more than three years difference) from sexual criminal prosecution.

Joe could have been 25 in Colorado, and Jane still 16, and no crime would have been committed. That's because Colorado law allows those aged 15 and 16 to engage in acts with those less than ten years older (and individuals less than 15 years old can participate in sex acts with those less than four years older).

The state of Delaware would have even more understanding vis'-a-vis' Joe: He could have been 25-29 and still OK to have sex with 16-year-old Jane.

Connecticut would have no problem with the Jane and Joe being 16, either. However, if Joe had been:

  • a guardian or someone responsible for the general supervision for Jane, he would be guilty of a sex offense, and vice-versa.
  • athletic coach or "intensive instructor" (i.e. piano teacher, etc.) the age of Jane's consent would have to rise to 18. (In other words, if 16-year-old Joe had been Jane's junior camp counselor, he would have been guilty of a sex crime)
  • in some kind of position of power or authority over Jane, and he was 20 or older, he would be guilty of some kind of sex offense.

There are many other states who have some kind of stipulation about one of the participants being in a position of authority or trust over the other participant. In many cases, the age or consent for the person who is under authority would either have to rise to make the relationship legal, or the age of the individual in authority would have to drop in order to narrow the age difference.

Obviously, "what is the age of consent” is no easy yes-or-no question. Bottom line: anyone considering entering into a romantic relationship with an individual under the age of 18 might be well advised to do a little research first – or consult a criminal defense attorney.

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Tim Martin
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