What is Sex Offense Law?

A look at types of offenses and the offender registry

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 30, 2023

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Trigger Warning: This article includes information on sex offenses, unlawful sexual contact, and the penalties associated with this sensitive area of law. Victims of sexual abuse can learn more about speaking with law enforcement here.

Sex offenses are serious crimes, and the criminal justice system has tried for many years to handle them effectively. If law enforcement has charged you with one of these crimes, you are likely weighing your legal options and wondering about the legal consequences.

The legal consequences of sex offenses can be severe and affect you and your families for a long time. You might want to consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney to help you understand your legal options and path forward. The following is a brief overview of different offenses and the offender registry to help you understand the basics before you speak with a lawyer.

Sex Offense Law – What You Need To Know

  • Sexual offenses are crimes involving unlawful sexual conduct.
  • Some common sex offense crimes include indecent exposure, solicitation, sexual assault, statutory rape, and possession of child pornography.
  • These criminal offenses include misdemeanors and felonies at federal and state law levels.
  • Because the law varies at the state law level, consider speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area right away.

An Overview of Sex Offense Law

Sex offenses and punishments range in seriousness depending on the actions and parties involved. Most sexual offenses fall under state law, though federal law also includes various sexual offenses, principally in Title 18 of the United States Code. Generally, these offenses can be divided into crimes against adults and crimes against children. There are also other categories of sexual actions that may be otherwise legal without specific characteristics, such as when the parties are related or exchange sex for money.

Crimes Against Adults

Most sex crimes committed against adults are under the umbrella of sexual assault. These offenses can range in seriousness from unwanted bodily contact to rape. The exact definitions of the various crimes are different from state to state, but there are some general principles.

The hallmark of sexual assault is that the actions are taken without the victim’s consent. Traditionally, laws required force and included references to gender. The modern trend has been to remove references to gender. The laws no longer require the victim to fight and often account for lack of ability to give consent due to incapacitation or impairment.

Crimes Against Children

Statutory rape is seemingly consensual sex with a child who is legally considered to be too young to consent. The age of consent can vary by state, but most states have set their age of consent at 16 or 17. Traditionally, this is a “strict liability” crime, which means there is no defense available—you would not be able to say you thought the other party was old enough to consent. However, some states now recognize the defense of an honest mistake.

In some cases, the offender is only slightly older than the minor, and the two are in a consensual sexual relationship. Some states have created laws to address these situations, sometimes called “Romeo and Juliet laws.” These laws vary by state and generally set out an age gap that constitutes statutory rape. In some states, relationships within the age gap are not unlawful, while in others, the offense is a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Other Offenses

Laws against incest prohibit marriage and sexual relationships between relatives. The specifics of these laws vary by state. For example, some states prohibit marriage between first cousins while other states allow them. The defense of consent is not available for incest charges, but lack of consent could lead to additional charges.

Most states have laws prohibiting the exchange of sexual acts for money. Many also have laws making it illegal to offer to exchange sex for compensation, and the person who pays for sex can also be charged with solicitation. At both state and federal levels, there are severe penalties for sex trafficking.

Finally, if you must register as a sex offender and fail to do so, you may be charged with an additional crime. Additionally, some states will impose stricter punishments if someone on the sex offender registry is convicted of another sex offense.

Sex Offender Registration

If you are convicted of certain sex offenses, you may be required to register as a sex offender. The sex offender registry is designed to allow the government to monitor convicted sex offenders. Registries are state systems, so you may be required to register again if you move to a new state.

Required information is state-specific but can include name, date of birth, address, photo, vehicle information, and offense information. Some states also include fingerprints or DNA samples. Some of this information is available to the public, but sensitive information like DNA samples and fingerprints are unlikely to be included in publicly available information.

Common Questions for an Attorney

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.

  1. What is a sex offense?
  2. What are the sex offender categories?
  3. What happens if I become a registered sex offender?
  4. What are criminal charges for aggravated sexual abuse?
  5. How do prison sentences differ for first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree felonies?
  6. What are Romeo and Juliet laws?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is crucial to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, search the Super Lawyers directory, using the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a criminal defense lawyer with experience handling sex offense cases.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Sex offenses can carry serious penalties and restrictions. If you are charged with one of these crimes, it will be essential to speak with an experienced lawyer so you can understand your legal options and the consequences you might be facing. Your lawyer can also help you navigate the registration process, should you be required to complete it.

A lawyer will anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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