Definition of statutory rape
statutory rape (plural statutory rapes)
- (law) An act of sexual intercourse by an adult with a minor who is below the age of consent.
The phrase statutory rape is a term used in some legal jurisdictions to describe sexual relations that occur when one participant is below the age required to legally consent to the behavior. Although it usually refers to adults engaging in sex with minors under the age of consent, the age at which individuals are considered competent to give consent to sexual conduct, it is a generic term, and very few jurisdictions use the actual term "statutory rape" in the language of statutes. Different jurisdictions use many different statutory terms for the crime, such as "sexual assault," "rape of a child," "corruption of a minor," "carnal knowledge of a minor," "unlawful carnal knowledge", or simply "carnal knowledge." Statutory rape differs from forcible rape in that overt force or threat need not be present. The laws presume coercion, because a minor or mentally challenged adult is legally incapable of giving consent to the act.
The term statutory rape generally refers to sex between an adult and a sexually mature minor past the age of puberty. Sexual relations with a prepubescent child, generically called "child molestation," is typically treated as a more serious crime.
Rationale of statutory rape laws
Statutory rape laws are based on the premise that until a person reaches a certain age, that individual is legally incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse. Thus, the law assumes, even if he or she willingly engages in sexual intercourse, the sex is not consensual. Critics argue that an age limit cannot be used to determine the ability to consent to sex, since a young teenager might possess enough social sense to make informed and mature decisions about sex, while some adults might never develop the ability to make mature choices about sex, as even many mentally healthy individuals remain naive and easily manipulated throughout their lives.
Another rationale comes from the fact that minors are generally economically, socially, and legally unequal to adults. By making it illegal for an adult to have sex with a minor, statutory rape laws aim to give the minor some protection against adults in a position of power over the youth.
Another argument presented in defense of statutory rape laws relates to the difficulty in prosecuting forced rape (against a victim of any age) in the courtroom. Because forced sexual intercourse with a minor is considered to be a particularly heinous form of rape, these laws relieve the prosecution of the burden to prove lack of consent. This makes conviction more frequent in cases involving minors.
The original purpose of statutory rape laws was to protect young, unwed females from males who might impregnate them and not take responsibility by providing support for the child. In the past, the solution to such problems was often a "shotgun wedding", a forced marriage called for by the parents of the girl in question. This rationale aims to preserve the marriageability of the girl and to prevent unwanted teenage pregnancy.
Historically a man could (and in a some jurisdictions still can) defend himself against statutory rape charges by proving that his victim was already sexually experienced prior to their encounter (and thus not subject to being corrupted by the defendant).
Gender differences in statutory rape
- Female and male statutory rape
In the past, sex involving an adult female and an underage male was often ignored by the law, and was often interpreted as a sexual initiation for the younger male. However, in recent years in some countries social perceptions have shifted, in part because mental health experts have noted that such sexual encounters can often be characterized as abusive, resulting in serious, long-term problems for the boys involved. Additionally, controversial were cases when the adult female is in a position of responsibility over the boy, and there have now been a number of high profile cases (Mary Kay Letourneau, Debra Lafave, Pamela Rogers Turner), in which adult females have been prosecuted for participating in sexual relationships with male minors. Under English and Scottish common law, such cases would be viewed as indecent assault and some cases have been prosecuted.
In at least one case the U.S. courts have held that male victims of rape are liable for child support for any children resulting from the crime. In County of San Luis Obisbo v. Nathaniel J. the victim discussed a future relationship with the perpetrator and stated that the sex was "mutually agreeable." Given this testimony, the California Court of Appeal held Nathaniel J. financially responsible.
- Same-sex statutory rape
In some jurisdictions, relationships between adults and minors may be prosecuted more strongly when both are the same sex. For example, in Kansas, if someone 18 or older has sex with a minor no more than four years younger, a Romeo and Juliet law limits the penalty substantially. As written, however, this law does not apply to same-sex couples, leading to higher penalties. The Kansas law was successfully challenged, as being in conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans. The Lawrence v. Texas precedent did not directly address equal protection, but its application in the case of State v. Limon was that it also invalidated age of consent laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation in Kansas (Lawrence v. Texas).
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