Statutory Rape Issues
Teenage girls were shocked last week when a 20-year-old woman filed a paternity lawsuit against heartthrob singer Justin Bieber, claiming he fathered her child. The woman, Mariah Yeater, says the two had a tryst following one of his Los Angeles concerts in October 2010. But the allegations could ultimately hurt Yeater. Why? Because if a sexual encounter did occur, Yeater could be charged with statutory rape.
What Is Statutory Rape?
By law, statutory rape is a crime that occurs when two or more people engage in sexual activity and one of the participants is under the age of consent, meaning they’re not old enough in the eyes of the law the agree to sex.
In California, the age of consent is 18 years old. Even if Bieber was a willing participant in the act, it would still be considered statutory rape because he would have been 16 when the sexual encounter occurred and Yeater would have been 19 years old.
Los Angeles Police have acknowledged they’re keeping an eye on the case and would consider criminal charges against Yeater if there was sufficient evidence that she engaged in sexual intercourse with Bieber.
Laws Vary From State to State
The age of consent varies from state to state and ranges between 16 and 18 years old. In some states, additional factors come into play when deciding whether statutory rape has occurred. Specifically:
- What is the minimum age of the victim? In some states, the victim must be between 13 and 18 for it to be considered statutory rape. If the victim is younger it’s simply considered to be rape.
- What is the age difference between the victim and the defendant? The majority of states also take into consideration the age difference between the parties when deciding whether statutory rape has occurred. For example, in Texas, the age of consent is 17 and the victim must be at least 14 years old. However, there must also be at least a three-year age difference between the victim and the defendant for it to be considered statutory rape.
- How old is the defendant? Sixteen states only prosecute statutory rape cases if the defendant is of a certain age. For example, in Nevada the age of consent is 16 years old. However, the state will only charge a defendant with statutory rape if he or she is at least 18 years old when the sexual encounter occurred.
One exception to statutory rape laws: All states allow minors who are under the age of consent to marry with their parents’ permission. (In some cases, a state court may also have to approve of the marriage.) If the sexual relationship is between a husband and wife—even if one is under the age of consent—it is not considered to be statutory rape.
Statutory rape is considered a crime in all 50 states. Typically it’s a felony, punishable by at least a year in jail. In some jurisdictions, it is sometimes only considered a misdemeanor crime, which is typically punishable with a fine, probation or less than a year in jail.
"A defendant can be charged with a separate crime for each sexual act that occurs," says criminal defense lawyer David L. Freidberg. "In Illinois, for example, if the victim is under the age of 13, it’s a Class X felony punishable by six to 30 years in prison. Each sentence runs consecutively. So, for instance, if someone is charged with and found guilty of having sex three times with someone under the age of 13, the defendant could be sentenced to between 18 and 180 years in prison."
Keeping Your Child Safe
If you’re a parent with a teenage child, you may be filling with dread as you read this. Is it still statutory rape if you knowingly allow your sophomore son to have a sexual relationship with his senior girlfriend? Are you abetting a crime if you buy condoms for your teenager?
These are valid questions and legitimate concerns.
In general, state laws do not provide an exemption for parental consent. In other words, an older teen or young adult could still be charged with statutory rape even if the younger child’s parents are aware of the sexual activity and approve of it. In fact, in extreme cases the parents of the younger child could be charged with child abuse for allowing their child to enter into a sexual relationship that is considered statutory rape.
All parents should familiarize themselves with the statutory rape laws in their state. And as you discuss human sexuality with your children, you should also consider whether it’s appropriate to make them aware of the statutory rape laws in your state.
Jennifer E. King is a reporter for the Lawyers.com blog.
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