In Tennessee, it is illegal for an adult (someone 18 or older) to have sex with a minor (someone younger than 18), 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 Tennessee and prosecuted as forcible rape. Assaults of a sexual nature may also be charged under the state’s assault and battery laws and child enticement and abuse laws. And for more information about rape between spouses, see Marital Rape Laws.
Statutory rape is prosecuted under Tennessee’s rape and sexual battery laws. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim, and the conduct that occurred, as described below.
Rape of a child includes sexual penetration (however slight, with a body part or object), including vagina, oral, or anal sex, with a minor who is younger than 13 years old. This offense is a Class A felony. Penalties include a fine of up to $50,000, at least 15 (and up to 60) years in prison, or both. (Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-522, 40-35-111 (2018).)
Aggravated sexual battery includes sexual contact (sexual touching—even over clothing— for sexual gratification) with a minor who is younger than 13 years old. This offense is a Class B felony. Penalties include a fine of up to $25,000, at least eight (and up to 30) years in prison, or both. (Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-504, 40-35-111 (2018).)
Statutory rape includes sexual penetration, including oral and anal sex, with a child who is at least 13, and a defendant who is at least four years older than the victim; or when the victim is at least 15 and the defendant is more than five (but less than ten) years older. This offense is a Class E felony. Penalties include a fine of up to $3,000, at least one (and up to six) years in prison, or both. However, this offense is a Class D felony if the victim is at least 13 and the defendant is ten or more years older. Penalties include a fine of up to $5,000, at least two (and up to 12) years in prison, or both. (Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-506, 40-35-111 (2018).)
State law requires, in addition to the applicable fines and prison time, that people convicted of certain instances of statutory rape must register as sex offenders. (Tenn. Code §§ 40-39-202, 40-39-212 (2018).)
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 Tennessee law, some other defenses can apply to statutory rape cases.
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 Tennessee, there is a Romeo and Juliet exemption for consensual sexual acts between a minor who is 13 or older and a defendant who is less than four years older. For instance, a 17-year-old who engages in consensual sex with a 15-year-old cannot be prosecuted for statutory rape. (Tenn. Code § 39-13-506 (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 Tennessee. But, as in most states, in Tennessee even a reasonable mistake of age is not a defense to statutory 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.
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 August 7, 2018