Teaching Module

Age of Consent Laws

U.S. Supreme Court Decision Justifying Gender-Based Age of Consent Laws [Legal Document]


The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the American legal system, with the power to determine whether laws enacted by state and federal legislators comply with the American constitution. The following appeal was made, and accepted by the court, in the context of a broader campaign for formal legal equality between males and females, through the enactment of gender-neutral laws. In this instance, the majority of the court held that there were grounds for only applying the age of consent to girls. That decision allowed state legislatures to retain their existing laws, but most still chose to enact gender-neutral laws. Nonetheless, the court drew a link between the age of consent and pregnancy that highlighted what would become the new focus for discussion and enforcement of the law in the U.S. by the end of the 20th century.


Michael M. v. Sonoma County Superior Court. 450 U.S. 464, 1981. Annotated by Stephen Robertson.

Primary Source Text

Petitioner, then a 17 1/2-year-old male, was charged with violating California's "statutory rape" law, which defines unlawful sexual intercourse as "an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female not the wife of the perpetrator, where the female is under the age of 18 years." Prior to trial, petitioner sought to set aside the information on both state and federal constitutional grounds, asserting that the statute unlawfully discriminated on the basis of gender since men alone were criminally liable thereunder.

JUSTICE REHNQUIST, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, JUSTICE STEWART, and JUSTICE POWELL, concluded that the statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

(a) Gender-based classifications are not "inherently suspect" so as to be subject to so-called "strict scrutiny," but will be upheld if they bear a "fair and substantial relationship" to legitimate state ends. Because the Equal Protection Clause does not "demand that a statute necessarily apply equally to all persons" or require "things which are different in fact . . . to be treated in law as though they were the same," a statute will be upheld where the gender classification is not invidious, but rather realistically reflects the fact that the sexes are not similarly situated in certain circumstances.

(b) One of the purposes of the California statute in which the State has a strong interest is the prevention of illegitimate teenage pregnancies. The statute protects women from sexual intercourse and pregnancy at an age when the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences are particularly severe. Because virtually all of the significant harmful and identifiable consequences of teenage pregnancy fall on the female, a legislature acts well within its authority when it elects to punish only the participant who, by nature, suffers few of the consequences of his conduct.

(c). . . a gender-neutral statute would frustrate the State's interest in effective enforcement, since a female would be less likely to report violations of the statute if she herself would be subject to prosecution. The Equal Protection Clause does not require a legislature to enact a statute so broad that it may well be incapable of enforcement.

How to Cite This Source

Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/230 (accessed August 10, 2021).