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?