Wisconsin Statutory Rape Laws

Learn about statutes governing Wisconsin's age of consent, associated criminal charges, available defenses, and penalties for conviction.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated March 18, 2024

Wisconsin law makes it illegal for a person to have consensual sexual relations with a minor younger than 18, with a few exceptions. Anyone who engages in such unlawful conduct can face charges for sexual assault of a child, sexual intercourse with a child age 16 or older, or underage sexual activity. These age-based offenses are commonly known as statutory rape.

What Is the Age of Consent in Wisconsin?

Statutory rape laws are premised on the assumption that minors are incapable of giving informed consent to sexual activities. In Wisconsin, the age of consent is 18. Anyone who engages in sexual activity with a child younger than 18 can face criminal charges. For these age-based sexual offenses, it's immaterial whether the child consented to the activity or not. The child's age is the important fact, as it determines whether that person can legally consent to sexual activities.

Wisconsin's Statutory Rape Laws

Statutory rape is prosecuted under Wisconsin's sex crime laws. Penalties depend on the ages of the defendant and victim and the sexual conduct that occurred (intercourse or contact). Second and subsequent convictions can result in harsher penalties.

Sexual intercourse means sexual activity between people consisting of oral, genital, or anal sex or penetration, however slight, by a body part or object.

Sexual contact occurs when the offender, for purposes of sexual gratification or arousal, touches the sexual or intimate parts of the minor, directly or through clothing.

What Are the Penalties for Statutory Rape Offenses in Wisconsin?

Penalties for statutory rape range from a misdemeanor to a Class B felony in Wisconsin.

First-Degree Sexual Assault: Child Younger Than 13

A person commits first-degree sexual assault of a child by having sexual contact or sexual intercourse with a minor younger than 13. Such unlawful conduct constitutes a Class B felony, which carries up to 60 years' imprisonment. If the crime involved sexual intercourse with a child younger than 12, a minimum 25-year sentence applies.

Second-Degree Sexual Assault: Child Younger Than 16

Second-degree sexual assault of a child occurs when a person has sexual contact or sexual intercourse with:

  • a child age 13 or 14, or
  • a child age 15 if the defendant is 19 or older.

This offense is a Class C felony and subjects a guilty defendant to up to 40 years of incarceration and a $100,000 fine.

Sexual Intercourse: Child 16 or 17

A person who's 19 or older commits a class A misdemeanor by having sexual intercourse with a 16- or 17-year-old. A guilty defendant faces up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Underage Sexual Activity by Older Teens

Underage sexual activity involves the following acts between individuals:

  • sexual contact between a 15-year-old minor and a defendant younger than 19, or
  • sexual intercourse between a minor who is 15 to 17 years old and a defendant younger than 19.

    This unlawful conduct is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

    Does Wisconsin Have a Romeo-and-Juliet Law?

    Yes, but with limitations. In many states, "Romeo and Juliet" exceptions—named for Shakespeare's teenage lovers—protect young people from harsh criminal charges for engaging in consensual sexual conduct with others close to their own age. Wisconsin has a couple of Romeo-and-Juliet provisions limited to older teens who are close in age.

    For instance, Wisconsin's law doesn't make it a crime for teens age 16 or 17 to engage in consensual sexual contact. If the conduct is sexual intercourse, the law considers it a crime but the Romeo-and-Juliet exemption reduces the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor. Sexual intercourse or contact involving a 15-year-old and a defendant younger than 19 also carries reduced misdemeanor penalties rather than harsh felony penalties.

    Defenses to Statutory Rape Charges in Wisconsin

    Defendants charged with sex-related crimes of minors in Wisconsin have several potential defenses available to them. At the same time, the law prohibits or limits the use of certain defenses.

    Actual innocence. Defendants charged with statutory rape or a similar crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "The alleged conduct did not occur."

    Consent. While many offenders attempt to use consent as a defense, this does not constitute a sufficient defense in sex crime prosecutions involving a victim younger than 18 but might allow for lesser penalties in certain circumstances.

    Mistake of age. Wisconsin, like many states, doesn't recognize a mistake-of-age defense for sex crimes involving underage victims, even if the defendant's belief was reasonable or the child lied about their age or looked older.

    Marriage. Wisconsin has a marital exemption for statutory rape that allows consensual sex between a married minor 15 or older and their adult spouse, even though their ages would prohibit it if they were not married. The marital defense is a remnant of the marital rape exemption.

    Is Sex Offender Registration Required for Statutory Rape Offenses in Wisconsin?

    Wisconsin's Sex Offender Registration Act requires, in addition to the applicable fines and incarceration time, adults convicted of certain sexual crimes (including statutory rape) to register as sex offenders. These crimes include first- and second-degree sexual assault. The law also applies to juveniles found delinquent of these offenses.

    Depending on the offense severity, registration lasts from 15 years to life. However, Wisconsin law includes an exception to the registration requirement for certain underage offenders close in age to their partners. For example, a defendant younger than 19 at the time of the offense and no more than 4 years older than the victim can petition the court to be exempted from the sex offender registration requirements.

    First-time failure to register constitutes a Class H felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Subsequent failures can result in more severe penalties.

    Talk to a Lawyer

    If you are facing a charge of statutory rape or a similar crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to the unique circumstances of your case. A knowledgeable attorney can also advise you on how the law will apply to your set of facts.

    (Wis. Stat. §§ 301.45, 939.50, 939.51, 939.616, 948.01, 948.02, 948.09, 948.093 (2024); State v. Jadowski, 680 N.W.2d 810 (2004).)

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