Sex Crimes

In spite of increased media attention, sex crimes remain under-reported in the U.S. today. Reasons include fear of retaliation, a sense that nothing will happen to the perpetrator, privacy concerns, and not wanting to get someone in trouble. Still, such crimes can have traumatic effects on survivors and their families.

Many different criminal offenses fall into the category of sex crimes. Most involve forced sexual contact. Both federal and state laws address sex crimes such as rape and sexual assault. Each jurisdiction sets its own time limit, or statute of limitations, for filing criminal and civil cases against an alleged offender.

Those convicted of felony sex offenses often face a prison sentence. Depending on the crime, they may receive the label of a "sex offender." In such situations, courts may order them to provide their name and address to local law enforcement. This will place them on state and federal sex offender registries.

The articles in this section address sex crimes, from indecent exposure and prostitution to sexual assault and child pornography. Read on to learn more about sexual offenses, relevant laws, and more.

Laws Against Sexual Assault

Federal and state laws against sexual assault prohibit sexual battery and forcible rape. Today, the underlying sexual conduct in these crimes may include sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, or sexual penetration by any object.

These laws establish crimes where the offender forces sex without consent. They also address situations where the offender knows the victim cannot consent. This includes cases based on a victim's age in allegations of statutory rape or child molestation. A lack of consent may also occur when a victim is under the influence of alcohol, controlled substances, or suffers from a disability.

State laws distinguish between their sexual assault offenses. What makes a crime a first-degree or second-degree felony offense will vary. In some states, an aggravated sexual assault may carry the most severe punishment. It can involve a sexual assault where the victim suffered serious physical harm or one where the child victim was very young. Often, such offenders face sentences of a term of years to life in prison.

Predatory Acts and Gateway Crimes

Many states have sex crimes based on those who prey on vulnerable persons. Oftentimes, these offenses may appear victimless. Crimes in this area include solicitation and prostitution offenses.

In the U.S. today, only a limited number of counties in Nevada treat prostitution as legal work. Many states acknowledge the power imbalance between those who engage in sex work and those who profit from it. Statistics in these areas are difficult to verify.

Under the working theory of most states, coercing or encouraging prostitution remains illegal. Crimes against pimping and pandering are usually felonies that lead to prison. Offenses involving solicitation of prostitution are more likely misdemeanors. They can lead to jail time. 

Where an offender's criminal record includes prior convictions, the penalties may increase. Where an offender's conduct appears to prey on minors (those under 18 years of age) or to involve them in sexual acts, the consequences become more severe.

In recent years, media attention has exposed long-standing cover-ups of child sex crimes in many institutions. As a result, state and federal authorities revised laws against child pornography and other forms of child sex abuse. These state and federal crimes now carry some of the harshest penalties in the criminal justice system.

Laws Addressing Prevention and Privacy

Many efforts to prevent sex crimes find their way into legislation at the federal level. In 2003, Congress provided significant funding to expand the AMBER Alert System throughout the United States.

The first AMBER alert program began in 1996. Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters partnered with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children.

AMBER, or America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, formed as a legacy of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle and then brutally murdered. First, law enforcement determines whether a child abduction occurred. If the incident meets AMBER Alert criteria, an AMBER Alert is issued. The alert notifies broadcasters and state transportation officials. Notice may go out to the public through a variety of methods, including cell phone text messages.

Tragedy also led to federal laws related to sex offender registration and notification. After the murders of Jacob Wetterling and Megan Kanka, Congress passed laws to provide for community notification of sex offenders.

By 2006, Congress passed the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). As a result, the community can learn about sex offenders living in their area. If sex offenders fail to register their address as ordered, they commit a separate crime that can send them back to prison.

Certain sex crime laws focus on punishing invasions of privacy that are of a sexual nature. For example, states often have laws against peeping and acts of indecency that stem from sexual motivation. The internet age also unleashed the phenomenon of revenge porn. This type of sexual abuse occurs when an ex-partner seeks to publicly disclose private sexual images of their former partner. Such images may depict a person in a state of nudity or engaging in sexual activity or lewd acts.

Most states have criminal laws against revenge porn. In 2022, Congress approved a federal civil action for such cases. It permits a depicted person who did not consent to such disclosure to seek damages and injunctive relief.

Need More Information on Sex Crime Charges?

Sex crime cases involve serious allegations. Sex crime convictions can lead to severe penalties and duties to register as a sex offender. There are several legal defenses available to those charged with a sex crime. To better understand the laws that apply in this area, consider seeking legal advice. Talk to a criminal defense lawyer or sex crime lawyer in your area.

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