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, even if they signal their agreement, violates the law.
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.
No Requirement of Force
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 is 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.
Age of Consent
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 don't recognize this defense.
The age of consent is generally the same regardless of whether the underage person is female, male, straight, gay, and so forth.
Factors Affecting the Punishment
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:
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.
More than half of the states have close-in-age laws. In the ones that don't, a narrow age difference may not be a valid defense to a statutory rape charge.
Professionals Required to Report
States impose a duty on certain classes of professionals to report any suspicion of child abuse, which can include statutory rape. These obligations may bind teachers, medical professionals, public employees, and clergy, among others. Mandatory reporting laws vary from one state to another.
Getting Legal Help with Your Statutory Rape Case
If you've been charged with statutory rape or any other crime, it can be risky to handle the matter on your own. Be sure to speak with an experienced attorney who knows the ropes. Contact a criminal defense lawyer near you today.