The term statutory rape refers to the engaging in sexual activity with an individual who is under the age specified by law to give consent. The age at which a person can legally consent to sex varies by state, but is generally between the ages of 15 and 18. Sexual activity that leads to statutory rape charges is usually consensual, technically. The problem is that the law does not recognize the minor’s consent.
In addition to the age definition, statutory rape laws apply to other individuals who are legally unable to consent, including those with some physical and mental incapacities. To explore this concept, consider the following statutory rape definition.
Definition of Statutory Rape
- Sexual intercourse, or other sexual activities, that occur between an adult, and a person under the legal age to consent, or otherwise incapable of consenting, as specified by the laws of each state.
What is Statutory Rape
Having sexual relations with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or any other person, who is under the age of consent, is a dangerous proposition. Even if the younger partner is a willing participant in sexual activities, the adult partner could end up in jail. The term statutory rape is misleading, as it does not refer to forced sexual activity. The laws regarding statutory rape vary by state, each specifying the age of consent, and other elements of the crime.
Statutory rape differs from child molestation and forcible rape, in that the act would not be crime at all, if both parties had been above the age of consent. Sexual relations that involve force or coercion, no matter the age of the parties, is a different crime, and may be charged as aggravated rape, or molestation.
Statutory Rape Laws
Statutory rape laws date back to the middle ages, when they were enacted to protect young people, as they do not have the maturity, experience, or good judgement to make such an important decision, or to give informed consent. Statutory rape laws also serve to protect innocent children from being preyed upon by older individuals. Traditionally, statutory rape laws were designed to protect the chastity of young women, but through the years, such laws have broadened to reflect a gender-neutral restriction on sexual activities with young people.
Gender and Statutory Rape
Until the 1970s, statutory rape laws typically ignored male victims, as it was believed that the male, even if he was younger, was often responsible for initiating any sexual activities that occurred. While modern laws have evolved to protect male victims as well as females, gender bias does still exist.
According to a 2013 analysis of 97 statutory rape cases, done by Star Ledger, the largest circulated newspaper in New Jersey, 54 percent of males suspected of statutory rape are sentenced to prison, while only 44 percent of females convicted of the same crime end up behind bars. Of those, the men received an average prison sentence of 2.4 years, and the women received an average sentence of 1.6 years.
Romeo and Juliet Laws
Sexual activity between two minors, or between a minor and an adult who are very close in age, presents a special problem for some people. In reaction to cries of unfairness in charging a young adult, perhaps 18 or 19 years old, having sex with a 16 or 17 year old girlfriend or boyfriend, many states have enacted what are called “Romeo and Juliet laws.” Even these types of law differ by state. Some states specify a limited range between the parties’ ages, as an exemption to statutory rape charges. Some states completely exempt such cases, others simply reduce the criminal charges to a misdemeanor.
Romeo and Juliet laws specifically address consensual sex between two young people, when one has reached the age of majority, and the other hasn’t. In at least a few states, Romeo and Juliet exemptions apply only to sexual acts between a male and female, providing no protection for individuals of the same gender. When considering whether to allow a Romeo and Juliet exemption, the law considers the relative age of both parties, and uses this information as a factor to lessen the charges concerning the criminal act.
For example, in Texas, an accused person can avoid a statutory rape conviction if:
- The victim was older than 14 years at the time of the incident
- The accused was no more than three years older than the victim
- The accused person was not a registered sex offender, or was not required to register as a sex offender at the time of the offense
- The sexual activity was not incest
- The sexual activity occurred between two people of opposite sex
Statutory Rape Defense
Like most crimes, there are a few defenses to charges of statutory rape, though potential defenses depend on the laws of the state in which the defendant is being charged with the crime. The most common statutory rape defense proffered by defendants is reasonable mistake of the victim’s age.
Reasonable Mistake of a Victim’s Age
If an individual is charged with statutory rape, some states allow him to show the court that he honestly believed, based on evidence, or a reasonable assumption, that the victim was over the age of consent. For instance, such belief may be based upon the circumstances in which the defendant and victim met, and the victim’s assertion or representation of him/herself as an adult. Not all states accept mistaken age of the victim as a statutory rape defense, however, taking the stance that ignorance of the victim’s true age is of no consequence, even if the victim convincingly lied about his or her age.
Noah meets Nichole at a bar in California, where she was drinking and dancing with friends. Nichole is all dressed up, and IDs are checked before entering the bar, so Noah has no reason to suspect Nichole might be a minor. Noah takes Nichole on a date the following week, and the two have sex. Nichole’s parents discover the truth of their 16-year old daughter engaging in sexual activity with a 23-year old man, and report it to the police. Noah is arrested and charged with Statutory rape.
Noah may attempt to prove to the court that he reasonably believed Nichole was over the age of consent, as he had met her in a bar, and she appeared to be an adult, though he didn’t ask her age. California does recognize “mistake of age” as a statutory rape defense, allowing the courts to hear evidence that a defendant truly believed the victim was over the age of consent.
In most states, consent of the victim itself is not a defense. In states that have a Romeo and Juliet law, however, consent is an essential element to prove, before the issue of what the defendant believed about the victim’s age, or the close ages of the parties, will even be taken into account. In states with no Romeo and Juliet law, however, consent is irrelevant. This is because point of the law is that someone under the age of consent is not legally able to give consent to sexual activity.
Age of Consent
The age of consent in the United States varies by state, and ranges from 16 to 18 years of age. Although the age of consent applies to an individual’s actual age in years, the court may consider the individual’s mental age in determining whether or not someone else took advantage of him or her. This means that some people’s mental acuity may leave them unable to legally consent, regardless of their chronological age.
The following table shows the age of consent by state, as well as the age difference allowed by the state’s Romeo and Juliet law, if the state has one.
|State||Age of Consent||Acceptable Age Difference|
Penalties for Statutory Rape
The penalties for statutory rape vary by state, as well as the circumstances surrounding the crime. In general, statutory rape is considered a felony, which holds a sentence of one or more years in prison. Other penalties include fines, community service, and restitution. If the state in which the crime was committed has a Romeo and Juliet law, statutory rape could be reduced to a misdemeanor, especially if the parties are close in age. This often results in a sentence of one year or less in jail.
A person convicted of statutory rape may also be required by the court to register as a sex offender, which imposes restrictions on where the offender can live, attend school, or be employed. Sex offender registration may also require the offender to meet with authorities on a scheduled basis. When an individual becomes a registered sex offender, his or her name is placed on a national database that can be accessed by the public.
Mandatory Reporting of Statutory Rape
Many states require certain professionals to report cases of statutory rape if they become aware, or suspicious, of sexual activities taking place involving a minor. Mandatory reporters include police officers, medical professionals, teachers, clergy, and others. Failing to report statutory rape can lead to criminal charges for individuals designated as mandatory reporters.
Statutory Rape Cases
Statutory rape takes many forms, from teens engaging in consensual sex, to adults taking advantage of young people. Courts in every state are frequently required to make decisions that are, at times, difficult.
Statutory Rape Case Between Consenting Teens Dismissed by Judge
In August 2011, police arrested an 18-year old college student from Antioch, California, and charged him with three counts of unlawful sex with a minor, also known as statutory rape. He was also charged with three counts of oral copulation with a minor. All of the events occurred when the young man was 18, with his then-girlfriend, who was 16. The arrest resulted a 12-day stay in jail for the young man, as well as the loss of his job at Fed-Ex, and a full semester of school. Perhaps worse, the relatively small community of Antioch treated this young man as a sex offender, before they even knew the details.
The charges came about after police were called to investigate a burglary at the girl’s house. She was 16 at the time, and officers learned that she was sexually involved with her 18-year-old boyfriend. Although the couple were high school sweethearts, the police were not amused when they found phone videos of the girl performing oral sex on the young man. The girl claimed she thought she was of legal consenting age, and did not want the prosecution to pursue charges.
The girl cooperated with authorities, breaking off relations with the defendant after his arrest. In March 2013, the case was set to begin jury selection, when the trial judge dismissed the case against the then 20-year-old man. The judge said he could see no benefit to society by going forward with a case that would stigmatize a young man for the rest of his life, requiring him to register as a sex offender.
The public defender representing the defendant claimed there has been a frightening trend involving prosecutions of consensual sex amongst teenagers. In California, where the incidents occurred, the age of consent is 18, and the law does not recognize Romeo and Juliet defenses. The case however, involved two parties with just a two-year age difference, and prosecution of statutory rape cases with this small age difference is rare.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
- Consent – To approve, permit, or agree.
- Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Felony – A criminal offense punishable by a year or more in jail.
- Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolving conflicts.
- Misdemeanor – A minor offense punishable by a year or less in jail.
- Restitution – The restoration of rights or property previously taken away or surrendered; reparation made by giving compensation for loss or injury caused by wrongdoing.
- Sex Offender – A person convicted of a crime involving sex, including rape, molestation, and production or distribution of child pornography.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.