South Carolina Statutory Rape Laws

Statutes governing South Carolina's age of consent, associated criminal charges, available defenses, and penalties for conviction.

By , Attorney

In South Carolina, it is illegal for a person to have sex with a minor younger than 16, even if the sex is consensual. Those who break the law have committed statutory rape—referred to as criminal sexual conduct with a minor in the South Carolina Code.

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.

The age of consent in South Carolina is 16.

South Carolina Statutory Rape Laws and Penalties

As noted above, statutory rape is prosecuted under South Carolina's criminal sexual conduct laws. Penalties depend on the age of the parties and the type of sexual contact that occurred, as described below.

South Carolina law divides criminal sexual conduct involving minors into three degrees, all of which are felonies. This article will also discuss a related offense—sexual battery with a student.

First-Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct With a Minor

First-degree penalties apply when a minor younger than 11 and a defendant of any age engage in sexual penetration (however slight, with an object or body part), intercourse, oral sex, or anal sex. A conviction means a minimum of 25 years in prison and up to life without the possibility of parole.

It's also a first-degree offense when a defendant has a prior sex offense conviction and engages in sexual penetration, intercourse, oral sex, or anal sex with a minor younger than 16. A convicted defendant faces 10 to 30 years in prison.

Second-Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct With a Minor

Second-degree penalties apply when sexual penetration, intercourse, oral sex, or anal sex occurs between:

  • a minor age 11 to 14 and a defendant of any age
  • a minor age 14 or 15 and a defendant who's older than the minor or in a position of authority over the minor (familial, custodial, or official).

This offense level carries up to 20 years in prison.

When the parties are close in age—the victim is 14 or older and the defendant is 18 or younger—the penalties in this section don't apply. (More on "Romeo and Juliet" laws below.)

Third-Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct With a Minor

Third-degree penalties apply when a defendant who is 14 years old or older commits or attempts to commit lewd acts on a minor younger than 16 years. A lewd act includes sexual contact meant to arouse or gratify the parties' sexual desires. This felony is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

When the parties are close in age—the victim is 14 or older and the defendant is 18 or younger—the penalties in this section don't apply. (More on "Romeo and Juliet" laws below.)

Sexual Battery With a Student

A private or public school employee who engages in consensual sexual penetration, sexual intercourse, anal sex, or oral sex with an enrolled student age 16 or 17 commits a felony punishable by five years in prison. The same penalty applies if the student is 18 or older and the school employee had direct supervisory authority over the student. In all other instances involving an enrolled student age 18 or older, the school employee commits a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 days' jail time. (Married couples do not violate this law.)

Sex Offender Registration

South Carolina requires both adults and minors to register as sex offenders for violations of criminal sexual conduct with a minor. (A limited exception applies to certain second-degree offenses.) Registration requirements apply for life. Failure to register as required can result in criminal penalties.

Defenses to a Statutory Rape Charge

Defendants charged with statutory rape have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as the alleged act didn't occur or someone else committed the offense. But the law strictly limits or prohibits the use of other defenses. For instance, consent is not a defense for age-based offenses. And while South Carolina permits a "mistake-of-age" defense for other crimes, the law does not allow it for statutory rape charges. A marital exception is allowed only for charges of sexual battery with a student when the school official and student are married.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are facing a statutory rape charge, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to your case.

(S.C. Code §§ 16-3-655, 16-3-755, 20-1-100, 23-3-430 (2021).)

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