Individuals who are convicted of sex crimes, regardless of the severity, are deemed “sex offenders” and are put on an offender list, which is available to the public. Although the precise definition of each offense varies from state to state, every jurisdiction recognizes the same types of behavior as offenses that harm the fabric of society.
Rape/ Sexual Assault
Generally speaking, rape is non-consensual sexual intercourse of any kind accomplished through threats or force, whether physical or emotional. Examples of the latter include a rapist who threatens to harm the victim’s family if the victim does not submit, or who claims to have damaging information about the victim. Traditional definitions of rape focused on “forcible rape,” violent genital intercourse committed by a man upon a woman to whom he was not married. However, the definition of rape has expanded to recognize that rape can include any kind of penetration, by a body part or an object. Recent changes to rape laws also recognize that a victim (or a perpetrator) can be either male or female, and that rape can be committed by a romantic partner or spouse as well as a stranger.
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Prostitution encompasses offering to provide, or engaging in, sexual services for compensation. In every state but Nevada, prostitution is illegal—and even in Nevada, prostitution is limited by location and governed by strict regulations. Prostitution laws also apply to those who promote a prostitute’s services and those who pay for them. Solicitation—engaging in a transaction where money or something else of value is exchanged for sex—is also a crime. The transaction need not be verbal; merely indicating a willingness to pay someone for sex qualifies as solicitation. For instance, if a person withdraws money from an ATM and hands it to a prostitute, that action is assumed to be solicitation of prostitution. The parties need not engage in a sex act to be charged with solicitation.
Sex Crimes Involving Minors
Both federal and state laws prohibit a range of sexual conduct with a minor. Proscribed acts include:
- Statutory rape and other unlawful sexual activity with a minor (aka “sexual abuse” or “molestation”). This crime involves sexual activity with a minor and goes by different names in different jurisdictions. However, neither “minor” nor “sexual activity” is self-explanatory; the definitions of these terms depend on the jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, “sexual activity” can mean touching without intercourse. Prohibited acts include:
- touching the young person’s private parts
- inducing the young person to engage in sex acts
- exposing your genitalia to a minor.
In some states, a minor is a person under the age of 18 while in other states, the age is as low as 15. Prohibited conduct may be categorized by degrees. For instance, first degree sexual assault may involve penetration (as under Michigan law) or it may correspond with the age of the victim (13 or under in Connecticut law) while second degree sexual assault need not involve penetration, or may involve a victim older than 13, but under 16. The salient point of such laws is the victim’s age: whether the victim is 13 or 17, these laws presume that the victim is unable to give meaningful consent. These crimes are defined and punished by state law. Federal law generally does not apply to a molestation or abuse case unless the case occurred in more than one state or on federal lands (e.g. a military base or reservation).
- Soliciting a minor, in person or online. “Soliciting a minor” means commanding or persuading a person who is under the legal age of consent to do something, in this case, to perform a sexual act. A sexual act may involve physical touching, or it may occur in cyberspace. For instance, asking a minor to masturbate or to describe a sex act rises to the level of solicitation. Many states recognize two different types of solicitation: direct encounters, and encounters in which the minor is contacted on the Internet (by email, in chat rooms, etc.). The existence of Internet-specific laws suggests special caution: if you have reason to believe that the person with whom you are interacting online is a minor, you can be liable. This can overlap with child pornography if a person asks a minor to send a sexually suggestive photo. Online solicitation of a minor is usually considered a felony; a conviction means having to register as a sex offender.
- Child Pornography. Both federal and state laws prohibit the creation, possession, and distribution of child pornography, which includes any visual depiction of a child under 18 in a photograph, video, and computer-generated image. The image does not have to show sexual activity to qualify as pornography; nudity may be enough, if it is sexually suggestive. Under some state laws, the restrictions on child pornography have been applied to nude or suggestive photographs that minors have taken of themselves.
While there is no federal law addressing incest, all U.S. states other than New Jersey and Rhode Island have passed laws against sexual relationships between family members. The laws vary in detail – all states ban sexual relationships between close blood relatives (usually defined as parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and often, first cousins), but some states also ban such relationships within adoptive, foster, and step families. The goal of these laws is to promote the stability of the family and preserve boundaries between different types of close relationships, so consent is not a defense to incest.
Indecency / Lewdness
The crime of indecency or lewdness typically involves public nudity or public sexual activity conducted with the aim of shocking, offending, or arousing viewers. The definition of this crime varies from state to state, but it may include acts like indecent exposure (showing your genitals in public), lewd conduct (engaging in sexual behavior where you are likely to be observed), or displaying obscene materials. Whatever the designation, this crime involves an open flouting of community standards. This charge can be applied to any behavior that is morally corrupt or unacceptable, or that tends to harm the general morals of the community. For example, engaging in a sexual act at a public beach might be deemed open indecency or public lewdness under state law. The restrictions imposed by indecency laws depend on context. Many jurisdictions offer a limited exemption to nude beaches or strip clubs. Most ordinances that allow strip clubs require performers to stay at least six feet away from customers; others prohibit complete nudity.