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Sexual Assault Overview

Sexual assaults affect millions of Americans annually. The term encompasses various actions that involve behavior or contact toward another person without their consent. The actions are defined by state law and can therefore differ by jurisdiction. However, some common examples of sexual assault include:

  • Fondling, kissing, or making unwanted bodily contact;
  • Forcing another person to perform or receive oral sex;
  • Forcing a tongue, mouth, finger, penis, or an object onto another person's anus or genitals; and
  • Forced masturbation.

This article provides a brief overview of sexual assault.

Sexual Assault: Definition

Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery to attempted rape. All states prohibit this type of assault but the exact definitions of the crimes that fall within the category of sexual assault differ from state to state. The laws share some basic elements, but the structures, wording, and scope of offenses vary considerably, so always check the local statutes for specific questions. For state-specific answers, more information can be found on the sex offenses -- legal answers page.

Proving Sexual Assault Charges

In general, sexual assault is involuntary sexual contact that occurs through the actor's use of force, coercion, or the victim's incapacitation. The law will consider the victim incapacitated if they did not have the mental ability to understand the nature of the sexual acts, or if the victim was physically incapable of indicating their unwillingness to participate in the sexual conduct. Common examples of these charges may arise from the use of alcohol or date rape drugs, both of which can make it impossible for a victim to legally consent to sexual conduct.

Most states have made sexual assault the umbrella term for other crimes, such as rape and unwanted sexual contact. Some states distinguish between crimes involving penetration and crimes involving coerced or involuntary touching, making the former an aggravated or first-degree sexual assault and the latter a lower-level sexual assault.

Spousal Sexual Assault and Federal Law

Most states have also extended laws to cover assaults perpetrated by spouses. States typically accomplished this in one of three ways: by removing the specific exemption for spousal assaults that existed in many laws, by removing marriage as a defense to the sexual assault charge, or by creating a separate law prohibiting sexual assault on a spouse.

The federal statute outlawing sexual assault tracks the general principles of sexual assault discussed above and prohibits any sexual act that occurs as a result of the actor threatening or placing the victim in fear. It also prohibits sexual acts occurring when the victim is incapacitated, either mentally unable to understand the act or physically incapable of communicating a lack of consent to the act.

State Laws

While the classification of sexual crimes is generally not too different from one U.S. jurisdiction to the next, states often have slightly different sentencing guidelines and definitions. Some states separate the various acts into different crimes, while other states lump them together under a single category.

State Law Examples

  • Sexual battery in Florida covers such acts as rape and indecent assault -- which were once separate crimes. Regardless of the severity of the crime, it is always charged as a serious felony. And when the victim is under 12 years old (assuming the perpetrator is an adult), the crime is a capital felony, with stiff punishments that include up to life in prison. Technically, the law provides for the death penalty, but the U.S. Supreme Court has disallowed the death penalty in these circumstances since 2008.
  • In California, sexual assault charges must allege a culpable intent (to abuse, arouse, or gratify) on the part of the offender.
  • Georgia's definition of aggravated sexual battery is extreme, "intentionally penetrates with a foreign object the sexual organ or anus of another person without their consent," and carries a harsh penalty, either life imprisonment or 25 years imprisonment followed by probation for life and mandatory sex offender registration.

Contact an Attorney About Your Sexual Assault Case

If you have been charged with sexual assault, you should know that the penalties can be quite severe, often including prison time, which is why it is always in your best interest to seek professional legal assistance.

If someone has accused you or a loved one of a sex crime, you should speak with a criminal defense attorney located near you as soon as possible to better understand the evidence in your case as well as your rights in the process.

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