According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), unwanted sexual contact is a severe problem in the United States, especially concerning the health of adolescents. It’s crucial both you and your teen understand what statutory rape entails here in Tennessee – meaning understanding the definition of consent, as well as what is and what is not legal when it comes to sexual activity between partners.
Research has found that:
- Adolescents who become sexually active at young ages are more likely to have experienced forced sex. Nearly 75 percent of women who had sexual intercourse before they turned 14 and 60 percent who did so before age 15 reported having a coercive sexual experience.
- Half of the children born to minors were fathered by adult men, who were often three to six years older than the mothers.
Statutory rape laws criminalize sexual activity that would be legal if not for the age of at least one of the parties. The modern justification for statutory rape laws is rooted in the desire to protect minors from sexual exploitation.
Unlike most rape laws, in which force is a critical element of the offense, statutory rape laws presume that all sexual activities with those below a certain age are forced, even if both parties participate voluntarily. Courts tend to define the ability to give legal consent to be able to recognize the potential consequences of sexual activity. Given this understanding, one can make an informed choice.
Most states do not use the terminology “statutory rape,” and state laws vary widely regarding their definitions of what constitutes statutory rape. Instead, state statutes frequently include several offenses with provisions written according to age that address voluntary sexual acts and the age at which a person can legally consent to sexual acts. Both men and women can be charged with statutory rape, and it can also be applied in same-sex relationships.
What is statutory rape in Tennessee?
In Tennessee, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 18, and minors below 13 cannot consent to sexual intercourse under any conditions. Under Tennessee law, statutory rape by an “authority figure is the unlawful sexual penetration of a victim or the defendant by a victim” accompanied by the following circumstances:
- The victim is at least 13 but less than 18 years of age.
- At the time of the offense, the victim was mentally “defective,” incapacitated, or physically helpless, regardless of age.
- The defendant was, at the time of the offense, in a position of trust or had supervisory or disciplinary power over the victim by the defendant’s legal, professional, or occupational status and used the power of trust to accomplish the sexual contact; or had, at the time of the offense, parental or custodial authority over the victim and used the authority to achieve the sexual contact.
When someone between 15 and 18 years old engages in sexual activity with a partner between four and five years older, this is considered mitigated statutory rape (consent is not considered), which carries the same consequences as statutory rape.
However, Tennessee recognizes the Romeo and Juliet (or Close-in-Age) exception, meaning state law does not penalize consensual sex if one of the parties is 13 to 17 years old and the other party is less than four years older, e.g., an 18-year-old who engages in consensual sexual activity with a 15-year-old cannot be prosecuted for statutory rape. Minors ages 15 to 17 are allowed to have sexual relations with partner who are no more than five years older than themselves.
What are the penalties for statutory rape in Tennessee?
There are three levels of statutory rape in Tennessee, and the penalties vary based on those levels:
- Mitigated and statutory rape are classified as Class E felonies, punishable by one to six years in prison.
- Aggravated statutory rape involving a person over 10 years older than their minor-aged partner is a Class D felony punishable by two to 12 years in prison.
- Statutory rape by an authority figure, a Class C felony, is considered the most severe form of statutory rape and is punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
A person convicted of statutory rape in Tennessee may have to register as a sex offender, since state law requires registration when an offender has prior statutory rape convictions. If they don’t, the judge is free to decide whether to order registration. However, anyone convicted of child rape or aggravated child rape will be required to register.
Defenses to a statutory rape charge
Those facing a statutory rape charge have several legal defenses available to them, along with the standard “it wasn’t me” or “the conduct did not occur.” In addition, Tennessee allows a “mistake of age” defense when the defendant reasonably believes their partner was older than they actually were, and the minor was 13 years old or older. However, consent can never be used as a defense in statutory rape cases, because Tennessee law presumes minors are not old enough to provide legal consent.
A statutory rape allegation can dramatically affect your or your child’s personal and professional life. The Sevierville criminal defense attorneys at Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, serve clients in Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Seymour, and throughout Tennessee. Our firm understands the ramifications of Tennessee statutory rape law and will mount a strong defense on your behalf. Please call us at 865-428-8780 or fill out our contact form to schedule your initial consultation today.
Attorney Bryan E. Delius was born and raised in Sevier County, TN. He founded Delius & McKenzie more than 20 years ago, after receiving his JD from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is admitted in Tennessee and in several federal court systems. Learn more about Bryan E. Delius.