With limited exceptions, Tennessee makes it a crime for someone to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 18), even if it's 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.
Tennessee law refers to statutory rape as sex with a minor age 13 to 17. The penalties depend on the ages of the parties and the age gap between them. If a person has sex with a minor younger than 13, however, Tennessee lawmakers consider the offense to be child rape or aggravated child rape.
For the most part, the age of consent for sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal sex) in Tennessee is 18 years old. The law provides that minors younger than 18 cannot consent to sex by virtue of their age and presumed immaturity—subject to a few exceptions for those close in age.
Tennessee law doesn't penalize consensual sex when one of the parties is age 13 to 17 and the other party is less than four years older. You'll often hear this close-in-age exception referred to as a Romeo and Juliet law (named for Shakespeare's star-crossed teen lovers). For instance, Tennessee's statutory rape law doesn't penalize consensual sex between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old. The exception also applies to adults who engage in consensual sex with a minor, as long as they are not more than four years apart in age. So, an 18-year-old who engages in consensual sex with a 15-year-old cannot be prosecuted for statutory rape either.
If the age gap widens beyond four years, a prosecutor can file charges for statutory rape. The penalties for statutory rape depend on the age of the defendant and victim. The larger the age gap is, the harsher the penalty will be. Regardless of any age gap, whenever sexual intercourse involves a child younger than 13, a person can face possible child rape charges.
Tennessee classifies statutory rape offenses primarily by the ages of the parties and the age gap between them. As discussed above, penalties for statutory rape apply when one of the parties is a minor age 13 or older and the other party is at least 4 years older.
Mitigated statutory rape. If the victim is 15 to 17 years old and the defendant is 4 to 5 years older, the offense falls under the classification of mitigated statutory rape. A person convicted of mitigated statutory rape commits a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years in prison.
Statutory rape. The next offense level—simply referred to as statutory rape—also carries a Class E felony penalty, but in these cases, a judge may require a defendant to register as a sex offender. (More on registration below.) This offense level applies in the following two instances:
Aggravated statutory rape. Aggravated statutory rape is a Class D felony, punishable by 2 to 12 years in prison. A person who is 10 or more years older than a 13- to 17-year-old victim commits aggravated statutory rape.
If a defendant holds a position of trust or authority over a minor age 13 to 17, statutory rape charges bump up to a Class B felony. A convicted defendant faces a prison sentence of 8 to 30 years. To fall under these strict penalties, the defendant must be:
The law defines a position of authority to include supervisory, disciplinary, parental, or custodial authority over a victim based on the defendant's legal, professional, or occupational status. A person in a position of authority might be a physician, counselor, boss, teacher, coach, or guardian. Those in a position of trust could include a clergy member, family friend, or neighbor.
A person who has sexual intercourse with a child younger than 13 commits a Class A felony, the highest felony level in Tennessee.
Aggravated child rape. Aggravated charges apply when the victim is 8 or younger. Also a Class A felony, this crime carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Defendants charged with statutory rape have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "it wasn't me" or "the alleged conduct did not occur."
Mistake of age. A defendant might also claim to have believed their partner was older. Tennessee only allows a mistake-of-age defense when the defendant's belief was reasonable and the minor was 13 or older. Mistake of age can't be raised in child rape cases where the minor was younger than 13.
Consent is not a defense. In statutory rape cases, consent is never a defense. The law presumes that minors are too young to give legal consent.
A person convicted of statutory rape may also have to register as a sex offender in Tennessee. The law requires registration when a convicted offender has prior statutory rape convictions. In other instances of statutory rape, a judge may decide to order registration.
Anyone convicted of child rape or aggravated child rape must register. This requirement also applies to juveniles adjudicated delinquent for child rape, when there's an age gap of more than four years, and in all instances of aggravated child rape.
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 at any time, and a lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to your case.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or rape, contact Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for online help and local resources.
(Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-506, -522, -531, -532; 40-35-111; 40-39-202, -212 (2021).)