ADOLESCENT SEXUAL ACTIVITY AND STATUTORY RAPE: A MULTI-METHOD INVESTIGATION

Open Access
Author:
Koon-Magnin, Sarah Louise
Graduate Program:
Crime, Law and Justice
Degree:
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
June 25, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Richard Barry Ruback, Thesis Advisor
  • Barry Ruback, Thesis Advisor
Keywords:
  • sex
  • sexual activity
  • statutory rape
  • adolescents
Abstract:
Statutory rape refers to consensual sexual activity involving at least one individual below the legal age of consent. Laws prohibiting statutory rape are intended to protect minors from engaging in behavior that, although not forceful, may be harmful. The three studies comprising this research explored the variety of statutory rape laws across the United States, state-level characteristics affecting them, and individual judgments of statutory rape. Study 1 was an analysis of all 231 statutes in the 50 states relating to statutory rape (range of 1-8 statutes per state). Across states, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16, 17, or 18. Most states have laws that decriminalize sexual encounters between peers if the perpetrator is within a specified age-span. The various age-span laws across states make behavior non-criminal if the perpetrator is less than a specified number of years older than the victim. These age-spans vary greatly across states: eight states have no age-span laws, but in one state there is an age-span of 10 years. Most states (n = 39) also grade the severity of the offense based upon the sexual act (oral sex or intercourse, with intercourse the more serious offense). No state makes a distinction based on gender of the victim, although the Supreme Court has ruled that such a distinction is Constitutional (Michael v. Sonoma 1981). Based on the findings of this research, the Internal Determinants of a state are associated with the Age of Consent statute. Diffusion Theory is the most effective theory for explaining variance in the age-span statutes across states. Study 2 was an experimental survey (n=427) of young adults’ perceptions of sexual activity. In the study, age of the victim (14, 15, or 16), age of the perpetrator (17, 18, or 19), and nature of the act (oral sex or intercourse) were systematically manipulated. Half of the surveys (randomly assigned) included the Pennsylvania statutory rape law. Study 3 (n=656) replicated and extended Study 2 by manipulating the act, the gender of the victim, and the gender of the perpetrator, and by including a wider range of victim ages (12, 14, 16, or 19) and perpetrator ages (16, 18, or 21). Across studies, respondents were significantly more condemning of acts with younger victims and/or older perpetrators. Victim age and perpetrator age interacted, such that individuals involved in relationships with larger age-spans were viewed as significantly worse than those with smaller age-spans. Overall, female respondents were significantly more critical than male respondents in their evaluations of the victim, the perpetrator, and the act. There was also a significant interaction of victim age and act, such that intercourse was significantly more condemned than oral sex for younger victims (14-years old or younger), whereas oral sex was significantly more condemned than intercourse for younger victims (16-years old or older). The Study 3 manipulation of victim gender revealed that acts involving female victims were viewed as significantly worse than acts involving male victims.