Rape Law & Legal Definition


In the United States, rape is the most serious form of sexual assault punishable by law, but the definition of what constitutes rape varies from state to state. In all states, if a man forcibly subjects a woman who is not his wife to sexual intercourse without her consent, he has committed the crime of rape.

Recently, an increasing number of states have passed rape reform laws to define rape to include certain nonconsensual incidents of intercourse without requiring the use of force as well as the rape of one’s spouse. Any sexual intercourse with a child is rape and in most states sexual relations even with consent involving a girl 14 to 18 is "statutory rape," because of the lack of the child's capacity to consent. Rape may also be found when a person has sex with a victim who is deemed legally incapable of consenting if she or he is known to be mentally incompetent, intoxicated, or drugged.

Rape shield laws have been passed in almost all states to protect victims from the emotional trauma of being questioned about their sexual history on the witness stand. The fear of being humiliated has discouraged victims from reporting and pursuing charges. On the federal level, the United States Congress enacted Rule 412 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. This Rule declares that evidence offered to prove the victim engaged in other sexual behavior, or evidence offered to prove any victim's sexual predisposition, is generally inadmissable in any civil or criminal proceeding involving alleged sexual misconduct.

Some states require the complaint of rape must be made within a certain time period. State laws vary on application of the "fresh complaint" doctrine. A fresh complaint is one made voluntarily and reasonably promptly after the sexual abuse. Discovery of rape trauma syndrome has undermined the fresh complaint rule, which was based on the assumption that delayed complaints of rape were less reliable.

The following is an example of a State Statute (Kentucky) defining 1st , 2nd and 3rd degree Rape:

KRS § 510.040. Rape in the first degree.

(1) A person is guilty of rape in the first degree when:

(a) He engages in sexual intercourse with another person by forcible compulsion; or

(b) He engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is incapable of consent because he:

1. Is physically helpless; or

2. Is less than twelve (12) years old.

(2) Rape in the first degree is a Class B felony unless the victim is under twelve (12) years old or receives a serious physical injury in which case it is a Class A felony.

KRS § 510.050 . Rape in the second degree.

(1) A person is guilty of rape in the second degree when:

(a) Being eighteen (18) years old or more, he engages in sexual intercourse with another person less than fourteen (14) years old; or

(b) He engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is mentally incapacitated.

(2) Rape in the second degree is a Class C felony.

KRS § 510.060 . Rape in the third degree.

(1) A person is guilty of rape in the third degree when:

(a) He engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is incapable of consent because he or she is mentally retarded;

(b) Being twenty-one (21) years old or more, he or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person less than sixteen (16) years old;

(c) Being twenty-one (21) years old or more, he or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person less than eighteen (18) years old and for whom he or she provides a foster family home as defined in KRS 600.020; or

(d) Being a person in a position of authority or position of special trust, as defined in KRS 532.045, he or she engages in sexual intercourse with a minor under sixteen (16) years old with whom he or she comes into contact as a result of that position.

(2) Rape in the third degree is a Class D felony.