What Is Sexual Abuse Law?

Understanding types of abuse and your legal options

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 6, 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.

Victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault often have multiple legal options to hold their abusers responsible. While the state pursues criminal charges, survivors may also pursue civil actions. If you are considering your legal options, you may find it helpful to speak with a lawyer who can assist you through these sensitive legal proceedings.

The following is an overview of common types of sexual abuse and your legal options. You can use this to help you evaluate whether you were a victim of this kind of sex offense, and as a foundation—so you feel confident speaking with a lawyer.


Sexual abuse is any sexual behavior, sex act, or contact that happens without your consent. The legal definition of sexual abuse can vary by state law and jurisdiction. For example, some state laws require the use of force, while others require there to have been affirmative consent to the sexual act. While the specifics vary by state, it may be helpful to know some common examples so that you can evaluate your situation. As discussed below, it’s important to seek legal help.

Unwanted Touching

Unwanted touching involves sexual contact without your consent. This can include fondling another person’s genitals or intimate parts as well as forced kissing. The laws in some jurisdictions specifically refer to these sorts of actions as “sexual battery,” while other states might use a theory of simple battery. In some cases, it can be difficult to draw the line between sexual battery and simple battery. Nevertheless, it is possible to bring a lawsuit against someone for physical contact without your consent as a sex crime. It’s also important to note that not all sexual abuse involves touching. Indecent exposure, for example, does not involve sexual contact.


The legal definition of rape, as well as the criminal penalties for rape, vary by state. The U.S. Department of Justice uses the following definition for purposes of national reporting of incidents of rape: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Traditionally, state laws limited rape to cases where a man forced a woman who was not his wife into sexual intercourse. Over the decades, states have updated their rape laws to recognize and prosecute rape regardless of marital status or the gender of the perpetrator or alleged victim. Additionally, the use of force by the perpetrator is no longer necessarily required to prove that rape occurred, and what counts as consent varies across the states. Some jurisdictions recognize different types of rape, including marital rape and date rape, which often involve the use of drugs that leave the victim unconscious or extremely intoxicated. Given the complexity of this area of law, it’s important to speak with an attorney who practices sexual abuse law if you have any questions.

Sexual Contact With a Minor

Any sexual contact with or molestation of a minor is a violation of the law, even if the minor seemingly consented. Every state sets its own age of consent (typically ranging from 16 to 18 years of age), and when a minor is younger than this age, they are legally unable to consent. This forms the basis of statutory rape charges, and it can also be used in a civil lawsuit. Keep in mind that some states have passed special laws that govern consensual relationships where one person is a minor and the other is only a little bit older. When sexual violence or serious bodily injury is involved, aggravated charges may be brought by the state, raising charges from a misdemeanor to a felony.


Incest is sexual activity between family members or relatives. The specifics of the criminal laws can vary by state, but it is generally unlawful for blood-related family members to engage in sexual activities or get married. When the situation involves a minor, cases may evolve into statutory rape or other sexual assault laws.

Criminal prosecution can follow sexual abuse. These cases are handled by the state, and you will likely be called to testify against the perpetrator. The burden of proof in these cases is quite high, as the state will have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of this high burden, a conviction in a criminal case of sexual misconduct can strengthen any civil charges you choose to pursue. An acquittal, on the other hand, will not necessarily destroy your civil case. This is, again, because of the high burden in criminal cases.

You may also bring a civil lawsuit in addition to any criminal prosecution that is happening. In these cases, you are seeking monetary compensation for the pain and suffering you experienced. The burden of proof in civil cases is lower than the standard in criminal cases and is called “preponderance of the evidence.” The most likely person you will sue is the person who abused you, but you may also be able to bring an action against an organization—like a school, business, or church—for the role it played in your abuse. These cases usually include claims of negligent supervision or security or a failure to respond to complaints or reports of abuse.

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 do I do if I think I was sexually abused?
  2. What is the statute of limitations on bringing a sexual abuse claim in my state?
  3. What kinds of damages can I get?
  4. I have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. How do I bring a claim?
  5. Can I get financial help to pay for therapy?
  6. What help is available for my child who was sexually abused?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use 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 lawyer who practices sexual abuse law.

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Sexual abuse cases can be sensitive and emotionally difficult. A lawyer can help you through the legal process by examining medical records, and interviewing witnesses and your abuser so you don’t have to. A lawyer will also know the best way to hold the responsible party or parties accountable and whether you can bring a case against your school or employer.

A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them, and they will 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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