Differences in Statutory Rape & Child Molestation

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While many individuals may confuse the terms “statutory rape” and child molestation, the two are very different from each other. Both terms are defined under state law, so there may be variations in the terms from one state to another.


Both statutory rape and child molestation refer to sexual contact between one person who is below the age of consent and one who is not. Both are violations of state laws.


The critical difference between these two terms is the voluntary actions of the minor who is involved. Another central distinction is the age of the victim. Due to the difference in the severity of the offense, different punishments may be imposed.

About Statutory Rape

Statutory rape generally refers to a sexual relationship with a minor who is past the age of puberty. This offense typically involves sex between a legal adult and an individual who is below a designated age that is determined by the state statute.

The legal theory behind this principle is that children under the statutory age of consent do not have the maturity, reasoning or judgment skills necessary to effectuate valid consent. Therefore, even if a minor child entered into a sexual relationship voluntarily, the law still considers the sexual relations to be a crime because the child did not actually provide consent. Therefore, the older party can be charged and convicted of statutory rape under this set of circumstances.

Different states have different ages of consent. For example, one state may have an age of consent of 17 while another may have the age set at 15. If a sexual relationship existed between a 15-year-old and an adult, the conduct would be illegal in the first state but not in the second, provided the conduct was voluntary. Additionally, statutes sometimes define an age gap that must exist in order to find that a crime has been committed. For example, Texas has a three-year gap. Therefore, if the statutory age of consent was 17, a sexual relationship between a 16-year-old and a 25-year-old would be statutory rape while a relationship between the same 16-year-old and an 18-year-old would not.

About Child Molestation

Child molestation generally refers to a sexual relationship or sexual contact with a prepubescent child. It is usually treated as a more serious crime than statutory rape. The state definition of child molestation may be any act of sexual conduct, abuse or indecency that is intended to arouse or satisfy the desires of the child or adult. The mens rea of the crime may be lewd and lascivious intent.

Some states recognize electronic child molestation, which would occur if an individual uses an electronic device in order to transmit sexual pictures of a child. The sexual nature of the picture may include showing the child engaged in, induced by or participating in any indecent act. Again, these laws are usually based on the age of the child. Therefore, the same conduct that is being used on a 16-year-old may not be a crime of this nature while it would be for conduct perpetrated on a 12-year-old child.


Because statutory rape is based on the concept that a person under the age of consent cannot form consent, proving force is not usually a required element of the crime. Other forms of rape or even child molestation may require a positive showing of force. However, if force is involved in the crime, many states choose to prosecute the offender under child molestation or aggravated rape charges.


An individual who is convicted of child molestation is often convicted of a felony. The actual punishment varies by the circumstances of the case, such as the age of the child and the conduct involved. A first-time offender in California who is convicted of child molestation faces a possible imprisonment term of five to 20 years.

A longer prison sentence may be imposed if the molestation caused physical injury to the child or included certain types of sexual conduct, including a life sentence in some jurisdictions. Additionally, sexual offenders may be required to undergo counseling. If the offender is also a minor, the charges may be for a misdemeanor offense rather than a felony offense.

Statutory rape may be a misdemeanor offense or a felony, depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances of the case. The central factors that affect this determination are usually the age of the victim and the difference in age between the victim and the perpetrator. A prior history of sex crimes can also affect punishment, as can a resulting pregnancy from the conduct. Conviction of statutory rape may result in imprisonment, fines and the requirement for a person to register as a sex offender.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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