Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements. Terminology

12/15/2004

Unlike most rape laws, in which force is a key element of the offense, statutory rape laws assume that all sexual activities with individuals below a certain age are coercive, even if both parties believe their participation is voluntary. Generally, statutory rape laws define the age below which an individual is legally incapable of consenting to sexual activity. For example, the Supreme Court of Idaho defined the ability to give legal consent to include: (1) the ability to recognize the potential consequences of sexual intercourse and, given this understanding, (2) the ability to make a knowing choice.[4]

The History of Statutory Rape Laws

As Michelle Oberman discusses in Regulating Consensual Sex with Minors: Defining a Role for Statutory Rape, the theoretical underpinnings of statutory rape laws have changed dramatically since their inception.[5] The modern rationale for these laws is grounded in the desire to protect minors from sexual exploitation. However, when these laws originated in 13th century, the primary intent was to protect the chastity of young women.

Oberman notes that the emergence of feminism heavily influenced changes to statutory rape laws. The laws went largely unchanged until the end of the 19th century, when feminists sought to increase the age of consent to protect young women from potentially coercive relationships. As a result of these efforts, the average age of consent was raised from 12 to 18 years old.

In the 1970’s, second wave feminists began to challenge the underlying principles of statutory rape laws. Although they recognized the importance of protecting vulnerable minors from coercive and exploitative sexual relationships, they wanted to ensure that the laws did not unduly restrict the sexual autonomy of young women. In addition, there was a strong push to make the laws gender-neutral.

Statutory rape laws continue to evolve in the wake of the reforms of the past 30 years. For example, the issue surfaced during debates about welfare reform in the mid 1990’s when some legislators suggested that stricter enforcement of statutory rape laws could help to reduce teen pregnancy rates.

The term “statutory rape” appears throughout this paper; however few states have laws which specifically use this term. More frequently, a state’s statute will include a number of offenses that have age-specific provisions addressing voluntary sexual acts and the age at which an individual can legally consent to such acts. For the purposes of this overview, “statutory rape” refers to sexual acts that would be legal if not for the age of at least one of the parties. The individual state summaries, in Section III of the report, reference the specific offenses that constitute statutory rape.

In the interest of clarity, the report also uses standard labels for the participants in the offenses discussed. “Defendant” refers to the alleged perpetrator or individual who would be subject to prosecution under the statute in question. “Victim” identifies the individual on whom the act was allegedly perpetrated. Although these terms may be overly simplistic, they communicate the legal role each party plays with respect to the laws discussed in the report.[6]

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