Whether two minors can legally consent to sexual activity with one another depends on several factors.
Unfortunately, there is no short answer. It’s impossible to make broad sweeping statements about whether two minors can legally consent because the answer varies state to state.
In the United States, most states have the age of majority set at 18. The exceptions are Alabama, Nebraska, and Mississippi, which have the majority set at 19, 19, and 21, respectively. The age of majority is when a person is legally considered an adult.
Likewise, the age of consent — which is defined as the age a person can legally consent to sexual activity under any circumstance — also varies. In the United States, this age ranges from 16 to 18, depending on the state.
To check out the age of consent in any given state, you can use this guide from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This guide outlines some of the nuances that exist between states. Some states, for example, have exception laws that say minors can legally consent to sex with other minors within a certain age range.
Legally, however, it’s assumed that people don’t recognize the potential consequences of engaging in sexual activity until they reach a certain age. This “certain age” is known as the age of consent.
Being sexually active can have both a physical and an emotional impact, though this varies from person to person and situation to situation.
In a 2002 survey of 618 ninth graders, researchers found that a substantial proportion reported feeling used, guilty, or bad about themselves after having oral or vaginal sex.
Many respondents also reported that their romantic relationships worsened, that they got in trouble with their parents, or that their reputations suffered.
Of course, unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission are also potential consequences.
Not all consequences are negative, however. The most common positive consequences involved experiencing pleasure and feeling good about oneself.
Researchers also found that — depending on whether the respondents engaged in oral sex, vaginal sex, or both — adolescents were more likely to report having had at least one positive consequence than having had at least one negative consequence.
“For consent to be consent, it must be able to be withdrawn at any time for any reason,” says sexual assault advocate TL Robinson, founder and CEO of GOTU, an anonymous online community for sexual assault survivors.
“No questions asked,” says Robinson. “No justifications needed.”
If someone is afraid of what might happen if they voice that they’re no longer interested in sexual activity — in other words, if they were to withdraw their consent — they’re not actually able to consent. Consent cannot be coerced.
So, why might someone want to withdraw consent? Here’s an incomplete list of a few common reasons:
- They changed their mind.
- Their physical state has changed.
- The environment around them has changed.
- They learn or remember something about the person(s) or circumstance that makes them uncomfortable.
- Their level of intoxication has changed.
- The time they have for sexual play has changed.
Robinson adds that a person might also withdraw their consent if:
- the condom or barrier method breaks
- they learn before or during sexual activity that their partner has an STI
- they find out they’re being recorded or watched by a third party
- they’re in pain
The withdrawal of consent can look several different ways. For example:
- “Wait, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
- “Sorry, baby, I thought I was in the mood to do this, but I’m not. Can we touch ourselves side-by-side instead?”
- “Actually, I’m not ready to do that. But I’d like to continue doing what we were doing before.”
Receiving consent can and should look like a resounding “yes!” If that yes is not given or it’s not given with enthusiasm, there is no consent.
That’s right: The word “no” isn’t the only sign that consent has not been given.
A “no” might also look like:
- “I don’t know.”
- “I’m not sure.”
- “I want to, but …”
- “Maybe we should wait …”
- not saying anything at all
- ducking or moving away
- putting clothes back on
If a “no” of any kind is given, that means sexual activity needs to stop immediately.
“Age of consent” is a legal term for the age a person must reach before they can agree to sexual activity.
According to the law, until a person has reached this age, they cannot grasp the potential negative consequences of having sex.
“The legal age of consent takes into consideration physical development and mental capacity to understand what’s happening in both the moment and what could happen in the future,” explains Robinson.
In the United States, most states (33, plus Washington, D.C.) have the age of consent set at 16. The age of consent is set at 17 in 6 states and 18 in 11 states.
For sexual activity to be consensual, everyone involved must be able to consent. In most cases, this means everyone must be at or older than the legal age of consent in the state or territory they’re currently in.
For sexual activity to be legal, it must be consensual, and it must be between people of the same age category.
For example, “two minors is illegal, as is one minor and one adult,” says Robinson. Both of these situations are considered statutory rape, which is a crime.
If reported, “the two minors would both be responsible and can be arrested,” says Robinson. “In a situation with one minor and one adult, the adult is responsible and is the only one who can be arrested.”
But what about two minors who are in the same grade or age bracket?
Can a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old legally consent to sexual activity with one another, or are all high school relationships that go beyond first base illegal?
“In some states, there’s an exemption to statutory rape if the two people who engaged willingly in sexual activity are close in age,” says Clark.
In Alabama, for example, it’s not a crime if both minors are over the age of 12 and are fewer than 2 years apart in age.
To check if your state has exception laws and to read what they are, refer to this guide from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
No matter your age, if your boundaries get crossed, it can be hard to know where to turn or what steps to take next. Know you’re not alone and have options.
In the moment
If your boundaries were just crossed, try to get away from the person who crossed them as safely and as quickly as possible, says Robinson.
Some perpetrators become agitated when they’re called out on their actions or are otherwise forced to confront their behavior. So, make up any excuse you need to leave the scene without angering them.
- “I forgot, but my parents actually want me home.”
- “I just got a text that my best friend’s cat is dying, and I need to go see her.”
- “Oh crap, I forgot my medication and need to go home to get it.”
- “My cousin is coming over! I need you to leave before she gets here.”
If your gut instinct tells you that you can’t leave the scene easily, text or call a trusted friend or family member and let them know where you are. They can help intervene or connect with local emergency services.
When you’re in a safe location, talk with a trusted adult. Please, don’t let fear of judgment or discipline stop you from reaching out to someone you love.
“Letting trusted people know what happened will help you get the support and help you need as well as protect you from the person,” says Robinson.
Also consider seeking medical attention, adds Robinson, especially if bodily fluids were exchanged or penetration took place.
“A Planned Parenthood, emergency room, or a local free clinic are all good avenues for care,” she says. Here, you’ll have access to:
- emergency contraception, like Plan B and the copper IUD, which can help prevent pregnancy if used within 5 days of the incident
- postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) can help reduce the risk of developing HIV if taken within 3 days of potential exposure
- prophylactic treatment can help reduce the risk of developing a bacterial STI, including chlamydia, syphilis, or gonorrhea, if taken within 3 days after potential exposure
- pregnancy screening and counseling
- STI screening
In the days, weeks, and months that follow
Having your boundaries crossed is no small potatoes.
“It’s a major trauma that can impact an individual’s overall wellness,” says Robinson.
That’s why she recommends finding someone to talk to and process this information with. Ideally, this will be a mental health professional, like a school guidance counselor.
“If there isn’t a person you think you can talk to, see if there are any local support groups or agencies in your area who can provide information and support resources,” she says. Usually, a simple Google search will bring this forth.
How to protect the adolescents in your life
If you’re the parent or legal guardian of a minor, you probably have questions about how to keep them safe. The answer: Talk with and educate them about sex and its possible risks, says Robinson.
“Educating minors about bodies and sexual desire, along with keeping the doors of communication open, can help,” she says. “As adults, we fail kids and promote sexual assault culture when we don’t educate them and leave them to their own devices.”
Broadly speaking, consent is not a difficult concept to grasp. However, the nuances around the legal age of consent are a little trickier to understand because they vary between U.S. states.
If you’re an adult with questions about the laws around the age of consent in your state, spend some time with this guide from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
If you’re a minor with questions about consent or sexual activity, connect with a guardian or teacher you trust, a healthcare professional, or a sex educator for more information.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more. In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called “Bad In Bed.” Follow her on Instagram @gabriellekassel.