The Fictional Age of Consent

How old should your characters be before they have sex? I ask, because my next book has a teenage boy who, by luck and stupidity, goes through a few sexual partners before the end of the book. He is seventeen years old. Is that too young? For what it’s worth, all of his partners are older and most of the sex occurs “off screen”.

I struggled with this one, and by the fact that I’m out here asking, I suppose I still am struggling with it. Conventional wisdom tells me to keep sexuality out of it until the character turns eighteen, but this is an odd case. The plot requires that he not have reached his age of majority yet, but he has been thrust into an adult world with adult choices, not to mention a body full of teen hormones. Even if I pushed his age to eighteen or nineteen, the plot would also require me to push that age of majority up to twenty, just to keep him legally as a minor.

I’m not reading much young adult fiction these days, but what little I have has been fairly non-sexual. Still, I suspect there’s quite a bit of sex in YA somewhere, simply because of the reactions I see to Twilight and the likes, and quite simply because *GASP* teenagers do have sex before they’re eighteen. Yet writing about it seems to border on child porn. Or does it?

At one point, I had thought about making him even younger, say fifteen or sixteen, but my concern over the sexual element was one of the things that eventually pushed him up to seventeen. I also considered the point that the age of consent in Texas (where I live) is seventeen.

Yet plenty of federal laws stipulate that anyone showing themselves in a sexual way must be at least eighteen years old, and for a while, the child pornography section of the Federal Child Protection Act of 2006 was being seen as possibly outlawing even the portrayal of underage characters in sexual ways. That was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2008 because while no prosecutor intended to go after movies like Titanic for showing the fictional 17-year-old Jack Dawson having sex, a plain reading of the law seemed to cover such Hollywood fare.

So, I’m going forward with a fairly clear conscious that I won’t be prosecuted for it, but I still wonder if it’s going to squick some people. So, how about you? Would your reaction have been different if the seventeen-year-old had been a girl?

4 thoughts on “The Fictional Age of Consent

  1. I read a story by an author who doesn’t usually go down this road in his fiction, at least not explicitly and he wrote a coming of age story that featured a fair amount of explicit sex. It was handled very well and there was no creepiness. Handled with humor or respect I think it can be excellent. Anything else becomes creepy. I hold in my mind the ending of It by Steven King. Of course the ickiness there served a purpose.

    • I’d like to think I handled it with humor and respect, but the proof is in the reader’s reaction. At the very least, I think I shied away from being too explicit.

  2. I don’t think it’s an issue at all. I’ve read a fair bit of YA over the last couple of years (trying to get a handle on how the genre works) and 17 is definitely not too young.

    The first example that springs to mind is The Morganville Vampires series. In that case, the protag is a 16 year old girl who gets involved with an 18 year old boy. They’re based in… Texas, perhaps? Anyway, the legal age of consent is 17. So although the protag would like to be having sex, her boyfriend is clear about waiting until she’s old enough. The moment she turns 17 (in booik 5, from memory), they’re bumping uglies as often as possible.

    I’d say 15 or 16 would still be okay, depending on the setting and expectations of the people in your world. But if you’re wanting to play it safe, I don’t think you can go wrong with making him 17.

    • Good example! I’m surprised my wife didn’t mention it since she reads that series.

      And yes, I’d bet that the characters are based in Texas since that’s where Rachel Caine lives.

      Interestingly enough, Texas has a sensible exception to the 17-year-old age of consent law. Namely, if the couple are within two years in age, then it doesn’t matter if one is over 17 while the other is under. So, if the 16 and 18 year-olds were 23 months apart in age, they should have been ok, but had it been 25 months, they’d have been in trouble.

      I became aware of that exception by the lack of it in California, where a friend’s nephew ended up being convicted because his high school sweetheart testified against him after they broke up.

      So, all in all, it’s starting to sound like I was worried over nothing here.

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