Statutory rape refers to sexual relationships occurring between two individuals when at least one of the individuals cannot legally consent to sex. While common belief holds that a uniform age separates an adult from a minor in regard to making decisions about one’s sexual behavior, several factors determine this, depending on the state or country in which the behavior occurs, including age of consent, the minimum age of the victim, the age differential between sexual partners, and the minimum age of the defendant in order to prosecute. Only 12 states in the United States have a single age of consent, meaning that once individuals reach this age, they may engage in sexual intercourse with another person above the age of consent. The remaining states may consider the other three factors in their statutes. To complicate matters, few states use the term statutory rape in their criminal codes; rather, the codes identify the legality of explicit sexual offenses.
Age of consent (between 16 and 17 years of age) is the age ordained by law that a person can agree to have sex. In addition to variations by location, the age of consent varies by sex (gender) and sexual orientation. Males may legally have sex at a younger age than females, and gay males and lesbian females may be subject to different statutes because of their sexual orientation. Below the minimum age (between 10 and 16 years of age), an individual cannot consent to sex under any circumstances.
The use, or threatened use, of force is a distinctive component in most rape cases; however, in a statutory rape case consent is typically not the issue. The rationale for statutory rape laws is grounded in the belief that below a certain age an individual does not have the mental maturity to make informed decisions for him- or herself. An older individual may exploit and manipulate the younger person’s naivete, so laws exist to protect the younger partner from this imbalance of power.
Historically, statutory rape cases focused on young women as victims. In patriarchal societies, if a woman lost her virginity and/or was impregnated before she married, she would be perceived as both morally ruined and shameful to her family. Sexual relationships or encounters involving young males were often overlooked and inherently perceived as less troublesome; however, in recent times this social stance has changed, as indicated by high-profile cases often involving female teachers and male students. Other social problems stemming from underage minors having sex with adults is the prevalence of out of wedlock teen pregnancy and parenthood and sexually transmitted diseases, each carrying a host of correlated problems.
Other problems include the unwillingness of victims to prosecute partners and the perception by police, prosecutors, and the general public that statutory rape is less harmful than forcible rapes or other sexual offenses involving children, thus designating less prioritization to such cases.
- Cocca, Carolyn E. 2004. Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
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