States’ laws addressing sexual activity involving minors are usually included in the section of the criminal code devoted to sexual offenses. Each state summary (Section III) includes a table detailing all of the offenses in the statute that deal with statutory rape.
As noted above, most states do not have laws that specifically use the term “statutory rape;” only five include the offense of statutory rape.20 More often, state statutes include a variety of offenses addressing voluntary sexual activity involving minors. In New Jersey, for example, sexual activities involving minors is addressed in three offenses: criminal sexual contact, sexual assault, and aggravated sexual assault. The ages of the victim and the defendant as well as the nature of the sexual activity dictate under which offense the conduct falls.
In some cases, provisions addressing statutory rape are embedded in rape or sexual assault laws that typically apply to violent offenses. For example, New Hampshire defines “felonious sexual assault” as voluntary sexual penetration with someone who is at least 13 years of age and under 16 years of age, as well as acts involving the use of physical force irrespective of the age of either party. Other states have separate offenses specifically concerned with sexual crimes involving a minor. For example, Alaska’s statute includes four offenses that deal specifically with the sexual abuse of a minor.
State statutes also use a variety of terms when referring to sexual acts (e.g., sexual intercourse, sexual penetration, sexual contact, indecent contact), and the definitions of these terms are not always consistent across states. The descriptions of the offenses within each state summary use the specific terms from the statutes and the summaries include footnoted definitions of these terms whenever the statutes provide them.
Understanding the different terms used in a state statute is especially important in those states where an individual may be able to legally consent to one type of sexual activity but not another. For example, Alabama’s laws regarding the legality of sexual activities with individuals who are under 16 years of age and more than 12 years of age differ depending on the nature of the activities. In cases involving sexual intercourse, defendants over 16 years of age who are at least 2 years older than the victim are guilty of rape in the second degree. However, sexual contact is only illegal in cases where the defendant is at least 19 years of age.
More often though, all of the acts will be illegal (with the same age requirements), but the severity of the punishment will differ based on the type of sexual activity. In Kentucky for example, sexual activities with children under 12 years of age are illegal regardless of the age of the defendant. If the activities amount to sexual contact, the defendant is guilty of first degree sexual abuse (a Class D felony); if they amount to sexual intercourse, the defendant is guilty of first degree rape (a Class A felony).
Although the primary focus of this report is not the punishments associated with statutory rape, the offenses in each state summary are listed in ascending order based on their severity.21 The severity of the crime is usually dependent on the nature of the sexual activities and the age of the victim and/or defendant.22
Depending on the state, defendants may be exempt from prosecution if they are married to the victim. In some states, marriage is a defense to all of the crimes listed (e.g., Alaska, District of Columbia, West Virginia); other states exclude some of the more aggravated offenses from this exemption (e.g., Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi).23 In a few states, the criminal statutes identify age limits for the marriage exemptions.24 Individual state summaries note those crimes that include spousal exemptions.25