Broadly speaking, a sex crime is any criminal act involving a sexual motive. As a general rule, criminal acts are prohibited by statutes, which are written laws enacted by legislative bodies. While some types of sexual conduct are prohibited under federal law, most criminal sexual conduct is governed by state statutes.
What Are the Most Common Types of Sex Crimes?
Though the specific details vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, every state has laws on the books prohibiting certain criminal sexual acts. Some are primarily prosecuted as felonies, whereas others may be booked as misdemeanors or felonies. Those crimes commonly charged as felonies include the following:
- Rape—Rape requires some type of penetration, which may be with a sexual organ, a body part, or an object. The penetration may be genital, anal, or oral.
- Statutory rape—The laws of every state make it illegal for an adult to have intercourse with persons under a certain age, regardless of whether the intercourse is consensual. The age at which consensual sexual conduct is legal varies from state to state but is generally between 16 and 18.
- Sexual assault—Though often used interchangeably with the term “rape,” sexual assault includes a broader range of offenses. Sexual assault does not require penetration but is customarily defined to include non-consensual sexual contact or behavior, including touching, brushing against someone, fondling, groping, and molestation.
- Child molestation / sexual abuse—A person will be charged with child molestation or sexual abuse for having sexual contact of any kind with a person under the age set forth in the statute (typically 15, but it varies from state to state). In most statutes, sexual contact is broadly defined to include fondling, stroking, rubbing, touching, or manipulating any part of the minor’s body in a sexual way.
- Child pornography—A person can be criminally charged for possessing, producing, or distributing any visual depiction of a minor engaged in certain sexual acts or posed in a sexually provocative way.
- Sexual extortion—A person can be charged with sexual extortion for using authority, threats of violence, or threats of blackmail to get another person to participate in sexual acts.
Other crimes may be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies:
- Indecent exposure—An indecent exposure act involves intentionally displaying sexual organs in public or in a private setting for anyone other than the perpetrator’s spouse.
- Public sexual indecency—A person may be charged for engaging in certain sexual acts in a public place when another person is present.
- Prostitution—Prostituion involves offering sexual favors or services for pay or other benefit.
Federal Sex Crimes
Sex crimes are most often prosecuted in state courts; however, severe sex crimes and cases involving interstate activity are prosecuted in federal criminal courts. The punishment for federal sex offenses is severe. Federal sex crimes include the following:
- Child sexual assault and rape
- Sexual exploitation of a child: coercing, bribing, or enticing a minor to engage in sexual conduct (e.g., for purposes of creating child pornography)
- Purchase or sale of a child for sexual purposes
- Possession or distribution of child pornography
- Human trafficking: using force, fraud, or coercion to recruit, transport, harbor, provide, or obtaining a person for forced labor or commercial sex acts
- Sexual abuse resulting in death
- Sexual crimes crossing state lines: traveling out of state to engage in sex crime or buying illicit sexual material and crossing state lines
- Sexual crimes on federal land or territory, including national parks, military bases, and reservations
In the case of federal sex crimes that are also illegal under state law, the state can prosecute a criminal defendant for the state-specific sex crime, while the federal prosecutor indicts for the federal sex crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a criminal defendant’s right to be free from double jeopardy is not violated when a defendant is prosecuted in state and federal court for the same sexual act.
The Penalties for Conviction of a Sex Crime
The potential sanctions for pleading to or being found guilty of a sexual offense depend, to some extent, on whether the crime is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. As a general rule, a felony conviction results in a prison sentence of at least one year, whereas the punishment for a misdemeanor involves detention in a city or county jail for a term of less than one year. Every state, though, has its own sentencing guidelines, and many have mandatory minimum sentences for certain types of sexual offenses.
Federal sex crimes often carry mandatory minimum sentencing, meaning you will be required to serve at least a specified federal prison sentence if convicted. Depending on the severity of the crime, prison sentences can range from 30 days to life in prison. The penalties for federal sex crimes involving children are very burdensome; for example, a conviction for sexual exploitation carries a minimum 15-year prison term.
A defendant may also face substantial fines and/or be required to compensate victims for medical or psychiatric care, physical or occupational therapy, and attorney’s fees. If you are convicted of a federal sex crime, you will likely be on probation and required to attend sex offender education upon release from prison. You also will be listed on the national sex offender registry.
A wide range of sexual acts may be prosecuted in both the state and federal courts. Many sexual offenses are felonies, with minimum sentences of one year in prison. A handful of sex crimes are prosecuted as misdemeanors, with lighter sentencing. Federal sex crimes, including those involving children, can carry severe penalties and long prison sentences, even life in prison.