/

What’s Statutory Rape?: An Ohio Case Spotlights the Grey Area

shown above: Genarlow Wilson, whose 10-year sentence was overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Statutory rape laws are meant to protect the young, vulnerable and often defenseless in society from those that seek to exploit their naiveté. We are glad statutory rape laws exist, especially when we picture a middle-aged man seducing a wide-eyed teenaged girl. These statutes make it easier to prosecute and deter rape, which we know is often difficult to do given the general skepticism surrounding rape allegations. Few of us, however, think about the times when statutory rape laws can result in stiff penalties for behavior we don’t view quite as harshly–consensual relations between two teenagers, for example – or when the victim may be subject to prosecution as well.

While statutes differ from state to state, the basic premise of statutory rape laws is that until a person reaches a certain age (the age of consent), he or she is unable to consent to sex whatsoever. Once certain facts are established – age and sexual conduct – that’s all she wrote. Statutory rape is a strict liability offense, meaning that a prosecutor isn’t required to prove intent or special knowledge, only that sex with a minor (as defined by the statute) has occurred.

While in law school, I was working for a criminal judge when a statutory rape case came before the court. In that case, two teenagers – a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old boyfriend – had a sexual relationship. When the girl’s mother found out, she immediately had the boyfriend arrested for statutory rape. Understandably, the mother was shocked and upset to learn that her young daughter was sexually active and with an older guy to boot. The girl, however, was very clear that she had been dating this young man for months and that she willingly had sex with him. She pleaded with the judge for leniency in open court and in a letter addressed to his chambers. This being a statutory rape case, her words were ignored and the young man was convicted. Furthermore, he was placed on the sex offender registry. As far as the law goes, that girl was never able to give consent to her boyfriend and he was guilty of rape. You can decide whether that’s “right” or not, but it’s the type of situation where the law is often applied.

Contrast that scenario with the high-profile stories of Marcus Dixon and Genarlow Wilson, both originally convicted of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation at the age of 17 in Georgia and sentenced to ten years in prison for sexual encounters with 15-year-old young women. Subsequently, each conviction was, in part, overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court but only after much outrage from their communities and the media. Many felt that the law was not meant to prosecute consensual sex between classmates and many more felt that race played a factor in how the law was applied.

Finally, I leave you with a more recent example of how statutory rape laws are applied. Right now, there is a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a case originating in Ohio. According to SCOTUSblog, the Court has been asked to consider “whether prosecutors violated the federal Equal Protection Clause when two pre-teen boys engaged in sexual conduct with each other in violation of a state law prohibiting sexual conduct with a pre-teen but prosecutors exercised their discretion to only charge one of these pre-teen boys.” What does this mean in plain English? In this case, a 12-year-old boy was accused of bribing an 11-year-old boy with video games in exchange for sexual acts which included anal sex. Because of the way Ohio’s statutory rape law is worded, every person under the age of 13 engaging in sexual conduct strictly liable and both can be charged. I don’t think we would want the younger child, the victim, in this case to be convicted of rape but the plain language of the law could make it so. Luckily, this law has a chance for review by the Supreme Court so that it isn’t so vague as to punish the person most would consider the victim.

While I support the spirit behind most statutory rape laws, I think that some of them are due for reconsideration to bring the law in line with the realities of our youth’s behavior. I don’t want my laws in the business of policing when is proper for young people to engage in sexual activity where manipulation, coercion, or force are not involved. I also don’t want the sex offender lists being populated by horny teenagers with no good sense to date people their own age. Alas, it’s a thin line and our laws err in the favor of protecting the most vulnerable even if a few strays get caught in the net along the way. The only way, in my opinion, to mitigate harm to either victim or offender is to allow for more judicial discretion in sentencing so that we don’t impact the lives of those the law was not necessarily intended to touch.

Last 5 posts by Nakia D. Hansen

  • Anonymous

    That first story really bothers me.  While the 14 year old could not legally give consent, what good did her mother do by contacting authorities and pressing charges against the 19 year old?  I hope they weren’t black because black men already have one strike against them for being black and now he’s likely to have a difficult time for the rest of his life behind those charges.  Taking such extreme action when unnecessary is just spiteful.

  • In that instance they were black folks. I’ve heard similar stories involving friends growing up. The parent is upset and wants to punish the child, punish the boyfriend, and deter sexual behavior whatsoever. I’d personally take each instance on a case-by-case basis, but I don’t really want those guys on sex offender registries. Imagine, years later trying to get a job, own a home, or coach your kid’s football team and being blocked because you dated a girl a few years younger when you were a teen — not because you are an attacker or a danger to children.