Sexual contact with a teenager can pose legal risks, and not just for adults. In some states, minors can also face prosecution for statutory rape, depending on a variety of factors.
Punishments for statutory rape can include probation, fines, mandatory prison time, and even a requirement to register as a sex offender. A key factor is where the alleged sex acts took place, because each state's laws are different.
In general, states consider four factors when it comes to statutory rape laws:
1. Age of Consent
Some states have what's called a "single age of consent" -- an age under which a minor cannot consent to sex, no matter what. This is the case in at least 12 states, according to a 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Other states specify an "age of consent," but also consider other factors in prosecuting an alleged statutory rape.
2. Age of the Victim
Some states specify a "minimum age" for sexual intercourse, under which it is illegal for a minor to have sex at all.
In these states, if an alleged victim is under the age of consent, but above the minimum age for sex, prosecutors generally look to the age difference between the sex partners.
3. Age Difference
Under many statutory rape laws, even if a minor is under the age of consent, sexual contact may not be illegal if the sexual partner is close in age.
Often called "Romeo and Juliet" laws, these statutes can offer a defense to a statutory rape charge, or can reduce the punishment to just probation or a fine, or even eliminate the requirement to register as a sex offender.
4. Age of the Perpetrator
At least 16 states have "minimum age" thresholds for a defendant to face prosecution. If an alleged perpetrator is under the age threshold, he generally cannot be prosecuted. Other states also impose more serious charges and punishments on adults 21 and over.
Because statutory rape laws are complicated and differ by state, it's a good idea to consult a local attorney if you're ever charged with having sex with someone underage.