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My Son Is Dating a Minor: Should I Be Worried About the Legal Implications?

Your 18-year-old son is dating a 16-year-old female classmate – no big deal, right? A two-year age difference isn’t particularly alarming, and dating is fairly standard at that age. But if these teens are having sex, and you live in a state where prosecutors aggressively enforce the law, it’s possible that your son could be charged with statutory rape.

Take, for example, the widely publicized case of Marcus Dwayne Dixon, an 18-year-old high school honor student and star football player who had sex with a 15-year-old female classmate. She claimed it was rape, he claimed it was consensual, and a jury acquitted him of the charges. However, because of their age difference, the jury still found Dixon guilty of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation, and sentenced him to a mandatory 10 years in prison under Georgia law.

In May 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Dixon’s conviction, stating that he should’ve been prosecuted on the lesser charge of misdemeanor statutory rape, which carries a maximum sentence of one year. He walked out of prison on May 3, 2004, at age 19, a free man. In an interview after his release, Dixon told The Oprah Show, “Freedom is great. It’s unbelievable that I’m finally home after 14 months. It’s awesome to be home with my family and friends.”

Prior to his court case and conviction, Dixon had been offered a full football scholarship at Vanderbilt University, which was revoked after his arrest. Upon his release from prison, Dixon enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia with a football scholarship. On April 27, 2008, he signed a three-year, $1.1 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys.

The Dixon case is just one in a long line of similar legal battles teens have faced in the last decade. Whether you agree with this outcome or not, the fact remains that statutory rape is considered a serious crime, enforceable to the full extent of the law in many states – and can change the course of a teenager’s life forever.

A Hot Topic Among Teens
The recent discovery that 16-year-old actress Jamie Lynn Spears, the sister of pop star Britney Spears, became pregnant by her 18-year-old boyfriend has again turned consensual sex among teens into a hotly contested issue. Although there is no public talk of prosecution, and much of the case would depend on where and when the sexual activity took place, onlookers have questioned whether Spears’ boyfriend could be charged with statutory rape, even though the two were in a long-term, consensual relationship.

Parents, particularly those with teenage daughters, certainly have cause for concern. Research shows that teenage girls tend to have their first sexual experience with male partners who are three or more years older. In one study, researchers discovered that girls who’d had an older boyfriend by seventh grade were twice as likely to have had sex by ninth grade as girls who’d had a same-age boyfriend by seventh grade. But do these dangers warrant laws that put young people in prison?

Romeo and Juliet Make a Comeback
Statutory rape is defined by the FBI as non-forcible sexual intercourse with a person who is younger than the statutory age of consent. The statutory rape laws vary greatly from state to state, with more than half of the states setting the legal age of consent at 16 (other states range from 14 to 18).

For the most part, there is no single age at which a person can consent to sexual activity. Only 12 states set a specific age (ranging from 16 to 18), while in the majority of states, the age of consent depends on multiple factors, including the ages of each partner and the number of years between them.

The purpose behind most statutory rape laws is to punish grown adults who take sexual advantage of a minor. Because the laws weren’t intended to punish two individuals close in age who engage in consensual sex, in many jurisdictions, an adult who is two or three years older than the minor will not be charged with statutory rape, or will be penalized less severely than a much older adult.

These so-called “Romeo and Juliet” laws provide defenses and reduced penalties in cases where the couple is relatively close in age. Depending on the state, Romeo and Juliet laws may reduce the severity of the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor, reduce the penalty to a fine, probation, or community service, and/or eliminate the requirement that the convicted adult register as a sex offender.

The following are just a few examples of Romeo and Juliet laws currently in place in the United States:

  • In New Jersey, the age of consent is 16, but individuals who are at least 13 years of age can legally engage in sexual activities if their partner is less than 4 years older than them.
  • In the District of Columbia, it is illegal to engage in sexual intercourse with someone who is under the age of 16 (the age of consent) if the defendant is 4 or more years older than the victim.
  • According to Louisiana law, it is a misdemeanor for someone aged 17 to 19 to have consensual sex with someone aged 15 to 17 if the difference between their ages is more than two years.
  • California law declares it a misdemeanor to have sex with someone younger than 18 if the offender is less than three years older; someone more than three years older could be charged with a felony.

Exceptions and Other Considerations
In addition to Romeo and Juliet laws, some states have specific exemptions when both parties to the sexual act are minors, or the person to be charged is legally married to the minor. However, there are still restrictions in some states about the type of sexual activity that is permissible, such as oral sex and sodomy, as well as restrictions on relationships involving a minor and a person of authority, including teachers, coaches, or tutors. All states have special provisions if any physical force was used or serious physical injury resulted.

Until recently, statutory rape laws applied only to females, ignoring situations involving sex between an adult female and underage male. Today, most laws are gender neutral, and a number of women in authority positions (such as Mary Kay Letourneau, Debra Lafave, Pamela Rogers Turner, and Pamela Smart) have been prosecuted for engaging in sexual relationships with younger males.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?
While many states have strict statutory rape laws on the books, prosecutors have been inconsistent in enforcing them, says Mark Chaffin, a researcher with the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. “In many cases, they are enforced largely by how angry the parents of the younger party are.” In some states, offenders have spent years in prison for statutory rape in situations similar to Jamie Lynn Spears’ while other states have prosecuted only egregious crimes.

One particularly shocking case drew international attention when 17-year-old Georgia resident, Genarlow Wilson, was charged with aggravated child molestation and sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. Georgia law, which has since been changed to classify this act as a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of one year in prison, also required Wilson to register as a sex offender when he was released. At 21 years of age, Wilson was released from prison when the court declared his sentence “grossly disproportionate to his crime.” Other states have made similar changes in an attempt to undo the harsh effects of exceptionally strict laws.

Are Statutory Rape Laws Outdated?
Statutory rape laws are based on the premise that although young girls may want to have sex, they may not have enough experience or discernment to make a mature, informed decision. The laws are designed to protect young people who have less information and power than their 18-and-over counterparts. For example, minors may be less likely than adults to understand sexually transmitted diseases, have access to contraception, and have the resources to raise a child if they become pregnant.

Most people believe there is a clear line between young people wanting to date and have sex, and adults molesting or assaulting a child. And most would agree that the difference between intimacy and abuse should be reflected in the laws of each state. But not all parties agree on how strict the laws should be.

Critics of strict statutory rape laws argue that while sexual relationships between teens relatively close in age may be morally questionable, prosecuting every case would unnecessarily clog up the justice system. They argue today’s teens often have the social sense to make informed, responsible decisions about sex and don’t need paternalistic laws to “protect their chastity,” and that it’s not the justice system’s responsibility to monitor teen relations.

But advocates of more diligent enforcement of statutory rape laws believe that the laws help combat the often underreported and hard-to-prove sexual abuse and rape of young girls. Others add that imprisoning men who are convicted of the crime could have a significant impact on teenage pregnancy and birth rates.

Know the Laws in Your State
Dating is a normal part of teenage life. But with the privilege of dating comes serious responsibilities. As a parent, you have to set boundaries and rules and take middle school and high school relationships seriously. If you suspect that your child is sexually involved with someone under the age of 18, talk to your child about the potential consequences and seek the advice of an attorney who is familiar with the laws in your state.

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