What Is the Legal Age of Consent in California?

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It’s a common question criminal defense attorneys get asked all the time: What is the age of consent in California?

In California, the legal age of consent for sexual activity is 18 years old. This means that individuals under 18 cannot legally consent to engage in sexual acts with anyone, regardless of their willingness.

As a result, if you engage in sexual activity with a minor, you very likely will face charges of at least statutory rape. Statutory rape charges carry significant penalties in California.

Thus, understanding the age of consent in California is crucial to protecting your rights and defending yourself against sexual offense charges. If you are facing a sexual offense charge, it is crucial that you contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney. 

Legal age of consent in California

History of Age of Consent in California

California’s age of consent has been 18 for many decades. While the original intent was to protect unmarried women, subsequent modifications eliminated gender-specific language, making the age of consent 18 for all individuals.

Although many amendments and proposals have sought to address issues related to California’s age of consent—such as exemptions for individuals close in age—the age of consent in California is 18, regardless of gender. 

California Consent Laws 

California age of consent laws apply to several offenses involving sexual activity with a minor. 

Statutory Rape 

Under Penal Code §261.5, it is unlawful to have sexual intercourse with an individual under 18.  If the defendant is less than three years older than the victim, then the case must be filed as a misdemeanor. 

Additionally, even if the defendant is more than three years older than the victim, the defendant can be charged with a misdemeanor, and the penalties can involve up to one year in jail, a fine, and summary probation. If charged as a felony, you can face up to four years in prison, a fine of up to $25,000, and felony probation. 

Lewd or Lascivious Acts 

Penal Code §288 criminalizes any lewd or lascivious act with a minor under 14. Lewd and lascivious acts, also called child molestation, generally refer to situations when an adult has sexual conduct with a minor.

This includes situations where the adult touches a minor for sexual gratification or causes the minor to touch themselves for a sexual purpose. This offense can be charged as a felony, resulting in up to eight years in prison. 

Oral Copulation with a Minor 

Penal Code §287 makes it illegal to engage in the act of copulating the mouth of one person with the sexual organ or anus of another under 18 years. 

Sexual Penetration with Foreign Objects

California Penal Code §289 governs the criminal act of sexual penetration with a foreign object without consent. The statute addresses situations where the act is accomplished against the victim’s will through force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury.

The section also includes instances of sexual penetration with a foreign object of a person incapable of giving legal consent due to mental disorder, developmental or physical disability, or intoxication. The penalty increases to 12 years if the victim is under 14.

Does Statutory Rape Put You on the Sex Offender Registry?

Under California law, a misdemeanor or felony conviction for statutory rape under Penal Code §261.5 does not automatically result in sex offender registration.

Judges have discretion in deciding whether to order sex offender registry in statutory rape cases. Generally, the court will look at the age difference between the parties, whether the conduct was consensual, and the accused’s criminal record. 

Exceptions to Age of Consent Laws in California

Unlike many other states, California does not maintain a “close-in-age” exemption or “Romeo and Juliet” law that serves as an exception to the state’s age of consent statute. Thus, while it is rarely prosecuted, it is still statutory rape if both parties are minors. 

However, California has a marital exception to the state’s statutory rape laws. Under this exception, unlawful sexual intercourse does not include acts with a person who is the spouse of the alleged perpetrator. It is important to note that individuals under 18 in California can marry with parental consent and a court order. 

Defend Your Rights: Expert Legal Help for Sexual Offense Accusations Involving Minors

Facing accusations involving a minor? Protect your rights and future. Contact us now for expert legal defense tailored to your case.

Are There Defenses to California’s Age of Consent Laws?

Despite California’s strict age of consent laws, several potential defenses exist to these offenses. 

Reasonable Belief About Age

Although ignorance of age is not typically a valid defense, it can be viable if you can establish the following:

  • The minor appeared and claimed to be over 18;
  • The minor had a believable fake ID indicating they were over 18; and 
  • The minor was present in a location where individuals had to be 18 or older. 

An experienced attorney can help you gather and present a compelling mistake of age defense. 

False Accusation

You may argue that they are falsely accused of the alleged sexual conduct. Evidence substantiating this defense includes text messages, emails, and witness statements. 

Lack of Evidence

A criminal defense attorney can argue that the prosecution’s evidence is insufficient to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Constitutional Violation

The charges might be dismissed or dropped if law enforcement violated your constitutional rights. 

Even with these potential defenses, the outcome of a sexual offense case depends on many factors, such as the strength of the evidence and specific details of the alleged conduct. 

Have You Been Accused of a Sex Offense Involving a Minor?

What is the age of consent in California? We can answer this and many other questions you have about being accused of a sex offense involving a minor. 

There are many defenses to crimes like statutory rape and other sex crimes involving minors. At the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, our California sex crimes defense attorneys have nearly fifty years of experience handling high-stakes criminal cases on behalf of clients.

Mr. Armstrong has handled nearly 100 jury trials and, as a renowned California criminal defense attorney, is often asked to provide his insight to media outlets.

To learn more about how the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, can help protect your rights and ensure a fair outcome in your case, reach out to us at 619-332-0525. You can also connect with us through our online contact form

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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