The Legality of Underage Sex

As I was leaving on Friday, I wrote briskly about Genarlow Wilson and the illegality of teenagers having sex with teenagers. I want to address the second issue more completely now.

We legalize so much of human action. Now don’t get me wrong, I am no libertarian. I do not want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. At least some of those legal opinions are good and justified.

However, far too much of telling this person or that person what they can or cannot do is about our personal, intimate, sexual lives. And even more of it targets the choices and actions of young people. And then, to top it all off, there are the legal opinions about the personal, intimate, sexual lives of young people.

So tell me again why it is illegal for two 15-year-olds to have sex with each other? What on earth is the justification for that? I have to admit, I just don’t get it.

The only thing I can think is that it comes from a moralizing, religious perspective that infantilizes teenagers and dictates a moral code that puts marriage and marital sex on an unwarranted pedestal. I think both of those positions are poorly thought through and damaging to young people’s healthy, long-term sexual development.

Please take note, this is not to say that I think it is necessarily a good choice for two 15-year-olds to have sex with each other. I’m just saying a poor sexual choice by a young person should not be illegal. And the fact that old, white, male elected officials think they should know about and control young people’s sexual choices puts a bad taste in my mouth. Honestly, that sounds much closer to something that should be illegal (like pedophilia) than young people lusting after each other.

Teenagers having sex is really a family and a community issue. And it’s something that, I’ll be honest, I think is a critical developmental milestone. We are trying to help our young people prepare for adulthood. And part of adulthood is having responsible sex. So teenagers need to prepare for having responsible sex. Sometimes that means they will need information. Sometimes that means they’ll have sex. But making that learning process illegal (teenage sexuality laws) or unavailable (abstinence-only-until-marriage education) are serious issues, and could have lingering negative influences for the young people’s remaining sexual lives.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Maybe the idea is that it ought to be illegal to have sex with a 15-year-old in general, and they forget that there’s a big difference between an adult and another 15-year-old.

  2. I think that folks recognize the risk of teenagers having sex before they are ready. But then the jump they make is that the law is the best way to ensure that. It’s like teenage abortion notification laws. In a perfect world, a teenager would talk to her parents about an issue this important (okay, in a perfect world, all pregnancies would be planned and welcomed…) But this isn’t a perfect world. Passing a law is not going to make a teenager talk to her parents if she otherwise wouldn’t and a law is not going to keep two 15 year olds from having sex.

  3. I try to think about what I am trying to accomplish when I take action. I try to consider what are the likely responses to the actions I am considering taking. Are those actions in line with my goals? Quite often, I have to review my goals and replan my actions several times, in order to bring those two things in line with each other. I think laws that try to regulate the personal life choices of teens are silly, because teens do not think ahead and do not consider legal consequences for the most part. Legislators would do well to think more deeply and acknowledge that some things can not reasonably be solved through legislation, no matter how well intentioned.

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