Sexual assault affects the lives of countless Americans each year. The term "sexual assault" encompasses any non-consensual sexual act prohibited by law, including those in which the victim cannot consent.
Sexual offenses are more common than most people want to believe. National statistics bear this out. Around one in five women in the U.S. experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Close to 25% of U.S. men experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.
What specific behaviors amount to sexual assault may depend on the law at issue. Federal and state laws define crimes of this nature. They may vary in their formulations. Common examples include the following:
- Unwanted fondling, kissing, or touching of another person's intimate areas
- Forcing or coercing another person to perform or receive oral sex
- Forced or non-consensual sexual intercourse
- Sexual penetration of another person's genitals or anus with a body part or object without consent
- Forcing or coercing masturbation
This article provides an overview of sexual assault. It will address crimes at the federal and state levels, including criminal penalties. It will also discuss sexual abuse of children and family members and tell you where to go for more information.
Elements of the Crime of Sexual Assault
Although there is not one definition of sexual assault governing all federal and state jurisdictions, there are common elements of such crimes. Often, federal and state law will legislate sexual assault crimes that vary in degree and penalty. All these crimes are serious. Sexual assault convictions can result in harsh prison sentences.
Crimes like rape, attempted rape, and sexual battery usually are higher-degree felony offenses. Crimes involving unwanted and non-consensual sexual contact or touching may appear as lower-degree felony offenses. Under certain circumstances, a sexual assault is a misdemeanor offense.
Federal law contains crimes against sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. It also addresses the sexual abuse of children through child pornography and sex trafficking of children.
The federal crime against sexual abuse applies to anyone in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., in a federal prison, or any prison, facility, or institution with a federal contract. It prohibits a person from knowingly doing or attempting any of the following:
- Causing another to engage in a sexual act by threatening or placing that other person in fear
- Engaging in a sexual act with another if that other person is incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct or is physically incapable of declining participation in or communicating unwillingness to engage in that sexual act
- Engaging in a sexual act with another without that other person's consent, including doing so through coercion
A federal sexual abuse conviction subjects the offender to a fine and imprisonment for a term of years up to life in prison.
Aggravated sexual abuse happens if:
- The offender uses force against the victim or causes them to fear they will subject someone to death, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping
- The offender drugs the victim to impair them so that they can engage in a sexual act
If the victim of aggravated sexual abuse is under 16 years of age, the potential prison sentence starts at 30 years.
Federal law distinguishes between sexual activity and sexual contact. For example, sexual acts include sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, or certain forms of sexual contact with a child under 16. Sexual contact is the intentional touching of intimate parts with "an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."
The specific names and elements of sex crimes vary from state to state. Some states separate the various illegal acts into different crimes. Others lump them together under a single category.
Many states have made sexual assault the umbrella term for other sex crimes. Sexual assault may refer to rape, statutory rape, or unwanted sexual contact. To clarify how your state distinguishes between these crimes, check your state's laws and consider talking to a defense lawyer.
Below are examples of sex crimes in selected states.
In Florida, sexual battery means engaging in oral, anal, or vaginal penetration by, or union with, the sexual organ of another or the anal or vaginal penetration of another by any object. Acts undertaken for medical purposes do not fall under this definition. The crime of sexual battery is one of general intent. The state must prove the offender acted knowingly and that their conduct included all elements of the crime.
The penalties under Florida's law vary based on aggravating factors. This includes when the victim is a child or when the act happens through the use of drugs or some other incapacity of the victim. More often, the aggravating factor is the use of force or threatened use of force that would cause serious personal injury.
An aggravated non-consensual sexual battery is a first-degree felony. An offender may face up to 30 years or a life sentence.
Without aggravating circumstances, a non-consensual sexual battery without force likely to cause serious injury is a second-degree felony. Upon conviction, an offender can face up to 15 years in prison.
In California, certain sexual assault charges must allege a culpable intent to abuse, arouse, or gratify on the part of the offender. California prohibits non-consensual sexual contact or touching under its sexual battery statute. Under that law, an offender commits misdemeanor sexual battery if they:
- Touch an intimate part of another person
- For sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse
- Against the other person's will
Misdemeanor sexual battery can lead to jail time of up to six months. If the alleged victim is unlawfully restrained, unconscious, or mentally disabled, then the matter may result in prosecution as a misdemeanor or felony. It can lead to up to one year in jail or two, three, or four years in state prison.
In contrast, California law says rape is a general intent crime. The rape statute bars an offender from accomplishing an act of sexual intercourse under several different scenarios that show a lack of consent or an inability to consent by the victim. An offender convicted of rape will face a prison sentence of three, six, or eight years.
If the offender uses force or threats of immediate harm and the victim is a minor, the penalties increase to as much as 14 years. Unlike some states, California has separate offenses for non-consensual acts of anal sex and oral sex. Still, the criminal penalties for all these offenses are similar.
Georgia, like California, has separate statutes banning rape and sodomy. Georgia penalizes forced, non-consensual sexual assault to a much greater extent. A person convicted of forcible rape or sodomy in Georgia faces either life imprisonment or a hybrid sentence that begins with a mandatory minimum of 25 years to life followed by probation for life.
Georgia's offense of aggravated sexual battery addresses cases where the offender "intentionally penetrates with a foreign object the sexual organ or anus of another person without their consent." This crime also carries life imprisonment or 25 years imprisonment followed by probation for life.
Other Consequences of Sexual Assault
Federal and state laws also require that almost all sex offenders register their addresses for years upon their initial sentence or release from prison. An offender risks a new criminal charge or a return to prison if they fail to follow sex offender registration laws.
Depending on the jurisdiction, victims can also bring civil suits against sex offenders and seek damages and other relief. In cases involving the worst offenders, the state may pursue civil commitment of the offender before their release from prison.
Domestic Violence and Children
Most state and federal sex crimes no longer give exemptions related to the marital status of the victim and the offender. There is much greater awareness today of marital rape or sexual assault occurring between intimate partners.
In cases of domestic violence, an offender might engage in physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of the victim. In recent years, states have made changes to past laws by either removing the specific exemption for spousal assaults, removing marriage as a defense to a sexual assault charge, or creating a separate law banning sexual assault on a spouse.
Our society also provides no tolerance for crimes against children. As a result, most states have changed their sexual assault laws to reflect such vigilance. Rape and sexual assault laws bar an adult from engaging in sexual conduct with a child under a certain age (say, 13 or 14 years old). There is no defense of consent or mistake of age in these cases. Penalties are severe and often include mandatory prison time.
Federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI prioritize crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children. Punishment for such crimes has also increased at the state and federal levels.
Do You Have More Questions About Sexual Assault? Contact an Attorney
If you are aware of ongoing sexual abuse, you can seek help or make a report. Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673. The hotline can refer you to local law enforcement or service providers that do victim advocacy, health care, or mental health services.
If you or someone you know stands accused of a sex crime, consider seeking legal advice. Knowing the law and your rights will help you better understand the evidence in your case. You can contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for more information.