Statutory rape refers to sexual relations involving someone below the “age of consent.” People who are underage cannot legally consent to having sex, so any form of sexual activity with them violates the law. This is true even in situations where they signal their agreement.
While the crime is popularly called statutory rape, many states don’t use that term officially but instead classify it as sexual assault, corruption of a minor, or carnal knowledge of a child. Most laws on this subject are state rather than federal ones.
Usually people think of the word “rape” as meaning a forcible sexual encounter. However, with statutory rape, no force is required to be in violation of the law. The crime typically involves an underage participant who willingly engages in sexual relations. However, because the individual is too young to legally consent to sex, it’s a crime whether or not force is involved. If the act involves force or coercion, many states prosecute the offender on charges such as child molestation or aggravated rape.
The age at which a person can legally consent to have sex varies from state to state. In most places it is 16 years old, but some set it at 17 or 18. In the eyes of the law, people below this age are simply too immature to make a decision that could have consequences such as a pregnancy. Society protects them by making it a criminal offense to have sex with them. Note that “age of consent” is a different legal concept from “age of majority,” which refers to becoming an adult for general purposes, such as being able to enter into contracts.
Historically, statutory rape was a “strict liability” offense, meaning that it didn’t matter whether the actor knew that the other person was too young to consent to sex. Some states now permit a defense of honest mistake. Basically, the actor argues “I honestly thought she was old enough because….” However, other states do not recognize this defense.
The usual punishment for statutory rape is imprisonment, sometimes along with a hefty fine and an order to register as a sex offender. A number of factors affect the severity of the sentence in a particular case. One is the age of the victim: the younger, the more serious the crime. Other factors that can impact a sentence include: 1) the age difference between the two people; 2) whether the actor and victim are members of the same household; 3) whether the actor is a teacher or other employee at the victim’s school; and 4) the actor’s past sex offenses, if any.
To address potential statutory rape situations where two people are close in age, a number of states have enacted what are sometimes called “Romeo and Juliet laws.” These laws carve out a different set of rules where the offender is only slightly older than the minor.
For example, in New Jersey, having sex with an underage person is sexual assault only if the actor is four or more years older. Thus, a 22-year-old who has intercourse with a 15-year-old commits a felony, but an 18-year-old who does the same thing does nothing unlawful. In some states, such as Georgia, closeness in age is not a complete defense but rather lowers the offense level to a misdemeanor.
States impose a duty on certain classes of professionals to report any suspicion of child abuse, which can include statutory rape. Generally, they types of professionals designated as mandatory reporters are those with access to children (such as teachers or medical professional) or in service positions (such as public employees and clergy). Mandatory reporting requirements are outlined in state laws, so the people designated as mandatory reporters, and the circumstances in which they must report suspected child abuse, will vary from state to state.
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