Can An 18 Year Old Date A 16 Year Old?

Communal area of a busy high school campus with young students.

It happens all the time. A 16-year old sophomore or junior in high school dates an 18-year old senior in the same school or another school. Maybe they met at the coffee shop where they both work. Two years difference in age is not a big deal as far as interests and compatibility go. However, most teenagers do not realize the potential legal consequences of their relationship. Even if their parents are fine with their dating, once the relationship turns sexual, there could be serious legal ramifications for the 18 or 19-year old.

Going to the movies, parties, concerts, and having lunch together may be perfectly acceptable. But chances are that the longer a young couple dates, from months to years, the more likely they are to engage in sexual activity. Once that happens, the consequences can be dire for the person who is at the age of majority. They face possible criminal prosecution and far-reaching consequences if the state convicts them of a sex crime. Though teen romance is common in all fifty states, all states have laws governing sexual relations with a minor. Be sure you know the laws of your state before you date an underage person.


Legal Implications Of An 18-Year Old Dating A 16-Year Old

It is not illegal for an 18-year old and a 16-year old to date. As long as “dating” means non-sexual activity, there are no laws against socializing between teens. However, when dating includes sex, there may be legal implications. It depends on state law, whether the state criminalizes sex with a minor. If the state does criminalize sexual behavior between teenagers, the 18-year old may have committed statutory rape even if the sexual acts were consensual.

Of course, not all dating activities are legal, even though dating itself is not outlawed. For example, the couple may not engage in underage drinking or loitering. But sex with a minor can be a crime, depending on the state’s laws. Sometimes referred to as the Romeo and Juliet law, each state determines the minimum age at which an individual can engage in consensual sex. In some states, that age is 18, others, it is 17 or 16. When a person has sex or sexual contact with someone younger than the minimum age of consent, they are most likely guilty of violating the statutory rape law.


How Does The Age Of Consent Affect Your Relationship?

In Arizona, California, and Florida, the age of consent is 18, while in Colorado, Illinois, and New York, it is 17. In Hawaii, Idaho, and Montana, a 16 year old may consent to sex, though the ages of the couple make a difference. Romeo and Juliet laws allow exceptions to statutory rape when the couple is close in age. So, for example, Texas allows a 14 year old to consent to sexual relations so long as their partner is not more than three years older than they are.

Some states have no age of consent, and states vary as to what constitutes sex, sexual relations, or sexual contact. Some outlaw sexual penetration with a minor, whether that is vaginal, digital, or anal penetration. Sexual intercourse may be prohibited and may include oral sex. Nevada considers sexual penetration as vaginal, digital, or anal penetration, and any form of oral sex. Other states criminalize sexual contact that is less or greater than sexual penetration.


Romeo And Juliet Laws Explained

Keep in mind that not all states have Romeo and Juliet laws, exceptions to statutory rape; some states allow consent with an age differential of three, four or five years between the consenting individuals. The aim is not to punish young, high school lovers with lifetime legal consequences from sex crime convictions.

But California, for example, has no Romeo and Juliet laws, so an individual caught having sexual relations, sexual contact, or in a sexual relationship with someone under 18 may be prosecuted for statutory rape, unless they are married. In Texas, however, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 17, but a minor can be younger if there is no more than three years difference between the minor and their partner, so long as the partner was not a registered sex offender at the time they had sex. So, despite the minimum age for a sexual partner to engage in a consensual sexual relationship, the state of Texas cannot prosecute an individual for statutory rape if the relationship complies with all of the Romeo and Juliet law requirements.


What Is Statutory Rape?

Even though the crime contains the word “rape,” a victim of this crime is a minor who engages in sexual intercourse or unlawful sexual activity with an adult, even though the activity is consensual. Unless you live in a state with Romeo and Juliet laws, a minor is anyone under 18 who has sex with a person over 18 years old. But the age of consent for each state matters in prosecuting statutory rape. By definition, any rape is nonconsensual, but statutory rape is nonconsensual because a minor is unable to legally consent to a sexual act.

Thus, some states define statutory rape by the age difference between the minor and adult, such as three, four, five, or six years, depending on the state. Others define it by the age of consent, ranging from 14 to 18 years old. In some states, the age of the adult matters. Some states punish older adults, age 21 or older, harsher than younger adults, under 21. California, Nevada, and New York punish statutory rape perpetrators 21 or older to the fullest extent of the law.

And many states call statutory rape assault, simple assault, or rape and assault by degree. First-degree rape or assault is typically reserved for sexual intercourse with a very young minor, typically under the age of 13 but some consider victimizing a 15-year-old as first or second-degree rape or assault. The punishment has a wide range and differs wildly from state to state, depending on each state’s characterization of statutory rape as sexual abuse under the penal code.


Penalties For Statutory Rape

Federal prison interior showcasing jail cells and a dark hallway.

The penalties for statutory rape range from 1 to 100 years in prison. Each state not only defines and classifies statutory rape by different degrees, acts, and ages, but also by different punishments. So, for example, Missouri punishes sexual intercourse with a person under 14 years of age with five years to life but only a maximum of seven years for a 21 year old having sex with a 17 year old. And Montana punishes an offender who has sex with a minor under 16 years of age who is three years younger with 4 to 100 years in prison.

All states punish sex with a young minor, typically 14 years of age or younger, more severely than sexual activity with a 17 year old, one nearly at the age of consent. The age gap is critical. Also, the smaller the age gap between the minor and the adult, the less severe the punishment. Some states consider the circumstances and charge statutory rape as a misdemeanor charge with a maximum of one year in jail. Almost all penalties include fines that can reach into the tens of thousands.

Aside from prison or jail time and fines, a conviction could mean the criminal defendant must register as a sex offender in their state under Megan’s Law. The sex offender registry contains the names and identification data of sex offenders, which is available to the public. The federal and state criminal laws require sex offender registration and housing and employment restrictions in many states.


Age Of Consent in the USA By State:

Map of U.S. showing age of consent by state.

Alabama 16
Alaska 16
Arizona 18
Arkansas 16
California 18
Colorado 17
Connecticut 16
D.C. 16
Delaware 18
Florida 18
Georgia 16
Hawaii 16
Idaho 18
Illinois 17
Indiana 16
Iowa 16
Kansas 16
Kentucky 16
Louisiana 17
Maine 16
Maryland 16
Massachusetts 16
Michigan 16
Minnesota 16
Mississippi 16
Missouri 17
Montana 16
Nebraska 17
Nevada 16
New Hampshire 16
New Jersey 16
New Mexico 17
New York 17
North Carolina 16
North Dakota 18
Ohio 16
Oklahoma 16
Oregon 18
Pennsylvania 16
Rhode Island 16
South Carolina 16
South Dakota 16
Tennessee 18
Texas 17
Utah 18
Vermont 16
Virginia 18
Washington 16
West Virginia 16
Wisconsin 18
Wyoming 18


The Bottom Line

If you are 18 and want to date your 16 year old sweetheart, there is no law preventing you from doing just that. Many high school students date one another, and even a high school graduate aged 18 can date a high school student. So long as the relationship is nonsexual, two teenagers can go to football games together, grab an ice cream at the local parlor, or meet in between classes at school. But once the relationship turns sexual, which can mean anything from mere sexual petting to intercourse, depending on where you live, you may be breaking the law.

Sex with a minor is the basis of statutory rape. If your state has Romeo and Juliet laws, you may not be prosecuted if your consenting partner is of legal age. Otherwise, you risk prosecution for sexual activity with a minor. The law in many states considers a two-year age gap between two teenagers less of an offense than a three, four, or five-year gap when one of the parties is over 21. Your best bet is to get legal advice from an attorney who knows the laws in your state.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the legal ramifications of an 18 year old dating a 16 year old?

So long as the two are not engaging in sexual activity, there may be no legal ramifications. Once the relationships change from close companions going to movies and restaurants together to sexual partners, the criminal law kicks in. For example, if you live in California, you are more likely to get off easier than if you live in Arkansas. In some states, you are more likely to be prosecuted for statutory rape, even with a two-year age gap, than in others. If you are dating an underage partner, and you are both considering making the relationship sexual, you should seek legal advice about your state’s statutory rape law.


What is the legal age to date in the U.S.?

Depending on your age, you may need permission from your parents to date, but by law, the legal age in states with age of consent laws is typically 16 if the dating relationship includes sex. So, if you are 17 years old and you are just going out with your 16 year old date, you may be fine, especially if you live in a state with Romeo and Juliet laws. However, an 18 year old dating an underage 16 year old, may want to seek a free consultation with a lawyer to understand the age of consent and statutory rape laws in your state.


What age is considered a minor for dating purposes?

It depends on where you live. The age of consent varies from state to state. In California, for example, anyone under 18 is unable to give consent to have sex. So, dating without sexual relations is legal for minors (anyone under 18), but sex is not. Many parts of the country consider sex with a minor sexual assault, especially in cases of young minors. So, a 19 year old with a 14 year old is more likely to be prosecuted for statutory rape in most states.

If you want to know how your state defines statutory rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor, or the age of consent, consult with a criminal defense attorney in your state who knows the laws regarding minors and dating a sexual partner.