What is Statutory Rape?
Statutory rape is defined as sexual contact with an individual who is below the legal age of consent. This law usually refers to adults engaging in sexual activity with minors. There are many different terms, all of which can refer to statutory rape - sexual assault, rape of a child, corruption of a minor, and many others.
Statutory Rape vs. Forcible Rape
Statutory rape is not the same as rape. The key difference between statutory rape and rape is that the only deciding factor between legal sexual activity and statutory rape is age. Lack of consent or use of force may increase the extremity of the punishment, but does not need to be involved in the sexual contact for statutory rape to have occurred.
Minors under the age of consent, as well as mentally handicapped individuals, are not legally considered mentally capable of consenting to sexual activity. However, it must be noted that sexual relations with minors who have not yet reached puberty is generally treated as a much more serious crime than statutory rape, usually called child sexual abuse or molestation.
Statutory rape can be treated differently depending on the genders of victim and offender. Until the later 1900s, statutory rape involving an adult woman and an adolescent boy was quite often ignored by the law, while a case of statutory rape involving an adult man and an underage girl was treated much more seriously. This type of thinking is still somewhat present today, although the crimes are legally equivalent to any other.
Statutory Rape Punishments
In most jurisdictions, statutory rape is a serious crime and a conviction results in significant jail time (average of 1-15 years) plus large fines of up to $100,000 or more. The exact class of crime that is committed (felony, misdemeanor, etc) depends largely on the relative ages of the perpetrator and victim. In many states, conviction with statutory rape also results in a mandatory lifetime registration as a sex offender.
Problems With Statutory Rape
While nobody contests the necessity of statutory rape statutes in protecting children from sexual predators, many statutory rape laws exist in a legal gray area that can have unintended consequences. In at least 29 us states, age of consent laws essentially rule all sexual contact with minors illegal, regardless of the relative ages of the partners.
This means that, for example, two fifteen year olds who engage in consensual sex can both be prosecuted for statutory rape, and may even be placed on the sex offender list for life. While many states have close in age exemptions which are designed to avoid this exact situation from occurring, there have been numerous incidents in which underage "offenders" have been prosecuted and convicted of statutory rape.
Additionally, many have questioned the ethics of prosecuting an individual with statutory rape when their partner lied about their age, acquired a fake id, etc. Cases have established the precedent that legitimately being unaware of your partner's age can be used as a successful defence against conviction of statutory rape in some states, especially when the defendant had reasonable reason to believe the defendant was over the age of consent (for example, meeting the victim in a bar where ge was confirmed by ID at the door).
Statutory Rape for Gay / Same Sex Couples
Same sex statutory rape laws can also vary wildly depending on country. In this day and age, the age of consent and statutory rape laws are often equal for everybody, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. However, in some areas, women may have a separate age of consent from men. Same sex sexual activity can have a different age of consent, different laws regarding male same sex sexual activity and female same sex sexual activity, or be completely illegal.
Societal Importance of Statutory Rape
Statutory rape is used today as a deterrent to adults pursuing sexual relationships with mentally immature minors. The age of consent itself is the age in which a young person is deemed mentally competent to consent to sexual contact. It was originally created for the sole purpose of protecting young women from men who might impregnate them, and leave them with the responsibility of raising a child alone. This solution utilized prevention, discouraging teen pregnancy, which had often been resolved with a “shotgun marriage”. It also helped preserve the “marriageability” of a young woman, usually defined as their chastity.
If you need to report a case of statutory rape, or need help with any other sexual abuse related issues, call RAINN's 24-hour hotline at 800-656-HOPE. They can advise you on local statutory rape laws, and show you the next steps if you decide to report an incident.