Sexual abuse in teenage relationships can occur as one of four types of violent behaviors between intimate partners—physical violence, sexual violence, psychological aggression, and stalking. Data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey shows that about one in nine female high school students and one in 36 male high school students report having experienced sexual dating violence in the last year.
For many victims of sexual abuse in teenage relationships, it can be difficult to understand that what you’re experiencing isn’t normal. Unhealthy relationships during adolescence can disrupt emotional development and contribute to long-term health effects. Violence in an adolescent relationship can also set the stage for problems in future relationships, including intimate partner violence and sexual violence perpetration and/or victimization throughout life.
This article will discuss the laws in California regarding sex between minors, warning signs of an unhealthy relationship, sexual coercion, and what to do if you or someone you know has been sexually abused within a teenage relationship.
The Age of Consent and Intimate Teenage Relationships
In the state of California, the age of majority is 18. This means that by state law, anyone under the age of 18 can’t legally consent to sexual acts. In teenage relationships where sexual contact involves a minor, it can be considered statutory rape, unlawful sexual intercourse, or lewd and lascivious acts with a child.
While California may not initiate criminal proceedings against children under 14 years of age for cases of sexual assault, “Romeo and Juliet” cases of voluntary sexual activity between two minors (ages 14-17) can be punishable as a misdemeanor offense, subject to juvenile court treatment. If found guilty, minors can be sentenced to home probation, sent to a juvenile home, or placed into foster care—the larger the age gap, the harsher the punishment. Minors can also be sued for compensation through their litigation guardian in civil court.
If incidents of sexual abuse took place while the minor was in the care of a mandated reporter, such as at a school, that person is required by law to report the crime to the proper authorities. The Health Framework for California Public Schools requires education programs to include instruction regarding the prevention of sexual violence in dating and teaching young people how to recognize and respond safely and effectively in situations where sexual or physical violence may be occurring.
Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Teen Relationship
It’s sometimes hard to tell if you’re in a sexually abusive relationship or an unhealthy relationship that could lead to sexual abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cautions you to look out for these warning signs of abnormal, unhealthy relationships:
- Your partner makes decisions for you, telling you what you can or cannot do.
- Your partner continually picks fights.
- Your partner is dishonest.
- Your partner uses economic dependence to exert control and power over you.
- Your partner makes fun of you, acts disrespectful, or crosses boundaries.
- You feel you have lost a sense of your individual identity in the relationship.
- Your partner intimidates or controls you with fear.
Dating violence can be emotional, physical, or sexual in nature and occurs if your partner is:
- threatening to harm you or themselves
- calling you names, shaming, or bullying
- keeping you away from friends or family
- behaving in a jealous or controlling way
- physically abusing you
- forcing you to engage in sexual activities when you don’t want to or can’t consent
- threatening to spread rumors if you refuse to have sex
- stalking by repeatedly making unwanted contact, which makes you feel unsafe
- cyberstalking with unwanted contact through text, email, or social media
If you feel forced to agree to engage in sexual acts with your partner, even if you don’t want to, you may be a victim of sexual coercion.
What Is Sexual Coercion?
California’s consent law says that “no means no” is not enough; consent is an affirmative “yes means yes.” When a person says “yes” to a sexual act out of fear or while under duress, intoxicated, or pressured, that is considered sexual coercion. In this case, an abuser may use tactics like threats, pressure through constant communications, trickery, isolation, the use of drugs and alcohol, or physical force to pressure someone into complying with unsought sexual activity.
Sexual coercion can exist in many forms and take place in various situations. It can be used in relationships when a partner threatens to seek sexual pleasure from another person if their partner declines. It can occur in the workplace when a superior offers a promotion, for example, in exchange for sexual favors. Coerced sex can also be common among athletes when peers threaten to seek revenge porn or a position or playtime is revoked by a coach if a sexual relationship doesn’t continue. In situations involving human trafficking, sexual coercion can exist when victims are threatened with deportation or harm to their families.
While sexual coercion itself isn’t codified as a crime by California law, it is used in the legal definition of rape. Under California law, rape is defined as “sex through the use of force, fear, coercion, or violence.” If you were to pursue criminal charges against an abuser, a rape conviction could result in a three-, six-, or eight-year jail sentence for the perpetrator. Sentences can increase to up to 11 years when the victim is under 18 or up to 13 years when the victim is under 14 or when the defendant acted in concert with another person to commit the crime. Fines from $2,000 to $25,000 may also apply.
In addition to pressing criminal charges, you may also file a civil lawsuit seeking financial compensation for losses related to medical bills, counseling, lost time off work, lost productivity, and an estimation of the emotional pain and suffering you have endured.
Tips for Victims of Sexual Abuse in Teenage Relationships
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse during a teenage relationship, here a few tips to remain safe:
- Trust yourself. If you have doubts or it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.
- If you decide to stay together, avoid alone time and have a friend drive you home from events.
- If you want to break up, write down all the reasons for your own reference.
- If you feel unsafe, break up by phone or email, or in a public place with witnesses nearby.
- Set your social media profile to private and block online contact with the abuser.
- Call the police if you feel you may be in immediate danger.
- Keep a detailed record of threatening, menacing, violent, or abusive behavior.
- Get a restraining order from the police department if you have safety concerns.
- Contact the National Teen Dating Helpline online or at 1-866-331-9474.
- You may also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 if you have been raped or exposed to sexual violence.
- Consider taking legal action as a way to recover from sexual abuse.
Contact a Sexual Abuse Attorney in California
The laws regarding sexual abuse in teenage relationships may be difficult to navigate but you don’t have to do so alone. If you believe you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, an experienced attorney can help you seek the justice you deserve.
The effects of sexual abuse in teenage relationships may include PTSD, anxiety, and depression that can persist for several months, several years, or even decades. These effects may surface later or worsen with time; working with an experienced attorney will help you obtain a recovery should you need to compensate for personal damages suffered as a result of the abuse.
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