The law indicates who can consent to sex and who cannot.
The law recognizes that children are developmentally not able to make decisions about some things, including when to engage in sexual behaviors. Laws vary by state, but a common age of consent is 16. Engaging in sexual behaviors with someone under the age of consent is illegal and will be treated as criminal sexual conduct.
A child’s permission does not equal legal consent
Even if a child or underage teen gives permission or acts willingly, this never implies consent. A child is never accountable. A child’s permission or even request to play a sexual touching or watching game never excuses the adult or teen from taking full responsibility for the interaction.
It is always the adult’s responsibility to set boundaries with children and underage teens. Sometimes people justify their sexual activity with children by saying the child “wanted” to or the child touched them first. They may misread a child’s affection as sexual. They may tell themselves “Age is just a number” or “S/he looks and acts older so it’s okay.” If someone you know is unclear about boundaries with children, remind them of their responsibility to set boundaries and the potentially high consequences to them if they don’t.
Learn the laws in your state
If your teen is in a romantic relationship with a younger peer, it is important to talk with them about the laws about consent. Be sure they understand the importance of the age differences between two sexually active teens and at what age they can legally consent to sexual contact – and when the laws says they can’t. Learn the laws in your state and talk with your child about the potentially serious consequences of not following the law. You can find this information online or learn more through the local office of your Attorney General.
Your Help CenterPrivacy
- Recognizing Warning Signs
- Definitions of Child Sexual Abuse
- How Abuse Happens
- Understanding Sexual Behavior in Kids
- Warning Signs in Adults and Children
- Warning Signs of Abuse in Children (Behavioral and Physical)
- Signs an Adult May be At-Risk to Harm a Child
- Behaviors to Watch Out for When Adults are with Children
- How Can I Tell if My Child Has Been Sexually Abused?
- Warning Signs a Young Person May Be a Target of Online Sexual Abuse
- Warning Signs of Someone's Dangerous or Illegal Online Activity
- Prevention and Safety
- Keys to Preventing Sexual Abuse of Children
- Creating a Plan for Safety
- Considering Filing Reports
- Talking About It
- Finding the Courage to Speak Up
- Speaking to Someone with a Sexual Behavior Problem
- When a Child Tells About Sexual Abuse
- How Should I Respond to the Child?
- What Should I Do after a Child Tells?
- How Can I Better Understand What My Child is Going Through?
- Possible Reactions of Non-Offending Parents and Caring Adults
- Is the Child Telling Me the Truth?
- What Might the Person Who Has Offended Be Thinking or Feeling after a Disclosure?
- Recovery and Therapy
- For Children and Adults Who Have Been Abused
- For Those At-Risk to Abuse Others or Who Have Offended
- For Parents and Caregivers
- Reporting and Legal Issues
- Filing Reports
- Child Protective Services and Police
- Legal Issues