As recently as the 1800s it was not unusual for people to get married long before they reached the end of their teenage years. These marriages frequently included a relatively young bride and a significantly older groom. Women also commonly became mothers before they reached their 16th birthday. Society largely accepted all of this without question. Times have changed though and the laws have changed with them.
Until the 20th century, people were not expected to live as long as they do now, meaning that “middle age” was usually considered to be in one’s late 20s or 30s. In addition, most people did not finish high school, much less go to college. As a result, people started thinking about marriage much earlier than they do now. Add to that the fact that parents were often looking for a stable, successful husband for their daughters and it was hardly unusual for a man in his 20s or 30s to marry a girl of 15 or 16. Sex, therefore, between someone as young as 14 or 15 with someone 10, 15, even 20 years older was not unheard of – and certainly not illegal. Today neither society nor the law allows such relationships.
Preventing the molestation of a child, however, is not the same as two teenagers engaging in consensual sexual intercourse say many advocates of what have come to be called “Romeo and Juliet” laws. These laws recognize that teenagers who may be separated in age by a few years may still be in love and engage in consensual sex. California does not have a Romeo and Juliet law. In California, the age of consent is set at 18 years old and sexual intercourse with someone under the age of consent is a criminal offense. The type of offense depends on the age of the victim and perpetrator.
Under California law:
- Sex between two minors, regardless of their ages, is not legal in California and can be charged as a misdemeanor
- Sex with a minor (under age 18) if the perpetrator is not more than three years older or younger than the victim is a misdemeanor
- Sex with a minor if the perpetrator is more than three years older than the victim may be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by up to one year in prison
- If the perpetrator is over 21 and the victim is under 16 it may be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by up to four years in prison
Along with a term of incarceration, a conviction for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (defined as an individual under the legal age of consent in California) may also result in civil fines and the perpetrator could be required to register as a sex offender if you move to another state.