Why are statutory rape laws so confusing?

People tend to find statutory rape laws confusing, complicated and very controversial. Historically, pre-1600s law, the age of consent was a low as 10 years old and women/children were viewed as property, belonging to the father or husband. Law, therefore, was more aimed to protect common morality than to punish the man for violating any law. There are many factors that intermingle with this situation such as race, ethnicity, and financial matters; however, that is not the intent of this post, I may possibly revisit this issue if the reader interest is there.

The generalized definition of statutory rape refers to sexual relationships between adults and minors, regardless of verbal consent. This issue is three-pronged and it is important to understand each one before delving further into issues related to statutory rape. Under the sex crimes umbrella, there are three rape categories, rape (stranger rape), date rape and statutory rape. This excludes incest and other sexual assault crimes, just so we are clear. Remember, changes to sex crime laws in the 1990s recognized that females are perpetrators of sexual violence as well.


Rape, in its most generalized form, refers to the vaginal, anal, or oral penetration of a non-consenting individual. This is typically applied to strangers and individuals with whom the victim did not have a romantic relationship. Additionally, some states recognize multiple degrees of rape, based on severity (violence/weapon), mental ability, and age.

Date Rape

Sexual battery involving individuals who had a previous romantic or dating relationship is referred to date rape. Although these cases are harder to prosecute because of the possibility of previous sexual encounters with one another, the crime is still legally considered rape.

Statutory Rape

Lastly, statutory rape refers to sexual relations involving an individual below the age of consent, according to individual state statutes. In other words, regardless of verbal consent of the minor, the individual’s age is what violates the law. It is important to remember that state statutes vary and not knowing your state’s law is not an excuse for violating the law.

Why is it so confusing? Although most people believe statutory rape simply refers to an adult and a minor involved in sexual relations, there are several contributing factors that make this topic very controversial. First of all, almost everyone has a story about knowing someone who was arrested for statutory rape because the parents of the minor did not agree with the relationship. It’s not that simple. Individual states have adopted some form of statutory rape laws as well as age-differential provisions. This is where it gets tricky.

The age-differential provisions in state statutory rape laws refers to the age span between the age of consent and the older individual. In other words, the older individual must be a certain number of years older for a crime to have occurred. Of course, there are states where there is a zero age-span. Let’s look at an example. In Idaho, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Intercourse with a female under 18 years of age is considered rape, regardless of the age of the defendant” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.). Now, here’s where the tricky age-differential aspect comes in to play. As stated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, “Sexual acts, not amounting to penetration, with a minor who is less than 18 years of age but at least 16 years of age are legal in cases where the defendant is less than 5 years older than the victim” (n.d.). The theory behind the age-differential or age-span is that with such a small amount of years between the two individuals, the sexual encounter is more likely consensual rathern than predatory.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements. Retrieved December 27, 2014, from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/08/sr/statelaws/statelaws.shtml