Statutory rape is distinguished from the common law offense of forcible rape, of which force and resistance are elements. The state must merely prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant engaged in sexual intercourse with a person under the statutory age of consent. The nonconsent of the minor is not required, because the minor is deemed legally incapable of giving consent. Thus, statutory rape is a strict liability crime.
Two interrelated policy goals underlie statutory rape laws: (1) to prevent innocent and immature teenagers from consenting to sex in an uninformed manner; and (2) to deter men from preying on young females and coercing them into sexual relationships.
Most state statutes have designated an arbitrary age of consent, ranging from ten to eighteen years old. The age of consent is not tied to physical development, but rather reflects differing views regarding an adolescent’s capacity to consent and whether sex with an adolescent is dangerous or morally undesirable.
Some state statutes include two or more age limits, with a harsher penalty when the victim falls within the lower age limit. Others define a range of age differences between adolescent participants inside of which sexual intercourse is lawful, thus excluding from prosecution sexual experimentation between contemporaries. Only five states have gender-specific provisions, justified on grounds of pregnancy prevention and the disproportionate burden that teenage pregnancy places on women. More than a third of states and the Model Penal Code recognize in some instances the defense of reasonable mistake as to age.
References and Further Reading
See also Rape; Strict Liability