In North Carolina, it is illegal for an adult (someone 18 or older) to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 16 years of age), even if the sex is consensual. Those who break the law have committed statutory rape.
Statutory rape laws are premised on the assumption that minors are incapable of giving informed consent to sexual activities. Their incapacity is written into the statute—hence the term, “statutory” rape. The age of consent can vary among states, and some states differentiate between consensual sex between minors who are close in age (for example, two teenagers of the same age), as opposed to sex between a minor and a much older adult.
Though statutory rape does not require that the prosecutor prove an assault, it is still rape. Of course, rape that does involve force or an assault is illegal in North Carolina and prosecuted as forcible rape. Assaults of a sexual nature may also be charged under the state’s assault and battery laws.
Statutory rape is prosecuted under North Carolina’s rape and sex crime laws. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim, and the conduct that occurred, as described below.
Getting Legal Guidance
The information in this article provides an overview of the law relating to statutory rape. If you are trying to determine the legality of any kind of conduct, make sure to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. The law is complex and changes regularly.
Statutory rape of a child by an adult involves vaginal intercourse between a child under the age of 13 and an adult who is at least 18 years old. Statutory rape of a child by an adult is a Class B1 felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.23 (2018).)
First degree statutory rape includes vaginal intercourse between a child who is 12 or younger, and a defendant who is 12 or older and at least four years older than the victim. First degree statutory rape is a Class B1 felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.24 (2018).)
Statutory rape of a person 15 years old or younger involves vaginal intercourse between:
(N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.25 (2018).)
Statutory sexual offense with a child by an adult includes oral or anal intercourse or penetration with an object or body part other than the penis, between a minor who is 12 or younger, and a defendant who is at least 18 years old. This offense is a Class B1 felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.28 (2018).)
First degree statutory sexual offense involves oral or anal intercourse, or penetration with an object or body part other than the penis, between a minor who is 12 or younger, and a defendant who is 12 or older and at least four years older than the victim.First degree statutory sexual offense is a Class B1 felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.29 (2018).)
Statutory sexual offense with a person who is 15 years old or younger includes oral or anal intercourse or penetration with an object or body part other than the penis, between:
(N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.30 (2018).)
Sexual activity by a substitute parent or custodian involves vaginal intercourse, oral or anal sex, or penetration with an object or body part other than the penis, between a child and an adult who has assumed the role of parent in the child’s home or has custody of the child. This offense is a Class E felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.31 (2018).)
Indecent liberties between children includes sexual behavior between minors for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire, when the defendant is younger than 16 but three or more years older than the victim. The offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-202.2 (2018).)
Taking indecent liberties with children includes sexual behavior for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire between a child and a defendant who is 16 years of age or older and at least five years older than the victim. The offense is a Class F felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-202.1 (2018).)
North Carolina has a structured sentencing system, so penalties for the offenses listed above vary according to the defendant’s criminal history. Penalties can include fines, jail (or prison) time, or both.
In North Carolina, it is also a crime to engage in vaginal intercourse, oral or anal sex, or penetration with an object or body part other than the penis, with a student if the defendant is a:
For example, an assistant coach who engages in sexual activity with a student could be convicted of the crime of sexual activity with a student. If the defendant is four or more years older than the student, the crime is a Class G felony; if the defendant is less than four years older than the student, the crime is a Class I felony. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.32 (2018).)
State law requires, in addition to the applicable fines and prison time, that people convicted of certain sexual crimes (including certain instances of statutory rape) must register as sex offenders.
Defendants charged with statutory rape have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as “Someone else committed this crime,” or “The alleged conduct did not occur.” But under North Carolina's laws, there are some other important potential defenses in statutory rape cases.
North Carolina has a marital exemption for some statutory rape crimes. The exemption allows consensual sex between a married minor and that minor’s adult spouse, even though their ages would prohibit it if they were not married. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.25, 14-27.30, 14-27.32 (2018).)
Minors are legally incapable of giving consent to having sex; so for example, if Jen, who is 15 years old, willingly has sex with Tony, her 23-year-old boyfriend, Tony can be charged with statutory rape, since Jen is not legally capable of giving consent in the first place.
But if Jen and Tony are married and living in North Carolina, Tony need not fear criminal charges for having consensual sex with Jen. This is because North Carolina has a marital exemption to the state’s statutory rape laws.
However, if Tony were to rape Jen (force her to have sex against her will), he would have no protection under the law even if the two are married.
Named after Shakespeare’s young lovers, “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions are intended to prevent serious criminal charges against teenagers who engage in consensual sex with others close to their own age.
In North Carolina, there is a Romeo and Juliet exemption for consensual sex between a minor of any age and someone who is at least 12 years old and no more than four years older than the minor. For example, a 17-year-old who has consensual sex with a 15-year-old cannot be criminally prosecuted in North Carolina. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-27.24, 14-27.25 (2018).)
Statutory rape charges typically become more serious the younger the victim and the older the defendant. For instance, vaginal intercourse with a child younger than 13 and an adult who is 18 or older is always a felony, and a conviction can result in at least 25 years' imprisonment. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-27.23 (2018).)
Defendants accused of statutory rape often claim that they had no reason to know that their partner was underage. They may argue that the child said that he or she was of age, and that a reasonable person would have believed it. But even if this is true, a defendant cannot rely on a mistake of age—even a reasonable one—to avoid conviction in North Carolina. As in most states, mistake of age is not a defense in North Carolina.
If you are facing a statutory rape charge, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. Laws can change over time, and numerous defenses may apply to statutory rape charges. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to your case.
A lawyer can often negotiate with the prosecutor for a lesser charge or a reduction in penalties (such as, for example, probation instead of prison time) and will know how prosecutors and judges typically handle cases like yours.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or rape, contact Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for online help and local resources.
Updated July 30, 2018