What is Legally Considered Sexual Abuse?

Understanding what behaviors are considered sexual abuse

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 27, 2023

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Sexual abuse is a broad term that could refer to several types of illegal sexual conduct, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, molestation, and rape.  

“It’s a much broader definition in civil law than what you would see in criminal law,” says Connecticut personal injury lawyer Cindy L. Robinson. 

“In the civil context,” says Robinson, “when we’re thinking about the sexual abuse of a child, it’s really anything that is done to them by the perpetrator that is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator. It can involve both touching and non-touching behaviors.”  

Sexual abuse and related sexual offenses affect millions of adults and children every year. If you or a loved one has suffered sexual abuse, both criminal and civil legal options are available.  

Criminal charges aim to stop and punish the perpetrator, while civil cases aim to give compensation to the victim of sexual offense. 

Sexual abuse can be defined in both state criminal codes and civil statutes. The legal definitions in criminal codes guide criminal cases, while the definitions in civil statutes apply to civil cases. 

In defining sexual abuse, laws may refer to several types of illegal sexual conduct. For example: 

  • Sexual assault. In general, sexual assault involves unwanted sexual contact or non-consensual sexual activity, including sexual touching, fondling, and kissing. Sexual assault may also involve pressuring someone to commit sexual acts, including oral sex, anal sex, or sexual intercourse. Coercion doesn’t necessarily involve physical force. Someone can coerce through threats and emotional manipulation without the use of force directly. 
  • Rape. Rape is a type of sexual assault. As defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, rape is “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any [part of the body] or object … without the consent of the victim.”  
  • Sexual exploitation. Child sexual abuse is a type of child abuse that involves using the child for sexual gratification. Child pornography or any kind of sexual exploitation of children is considered a type of child abuse.   

While sexual abuse often involves touching, it does not have to. For example, “there are situations where individuals suffer sexual abuse as children because they were exposed to an adult purposefully masturbating in front of them for sexual gratification,” says Robinson.  

A lawyer in your area will understand your state’s laws and legal definitions and be able to give you the best advice on your case. 

What About Sexual Harassment? 

Sexual harassment is a civil issue defined under both state and federal anti-discrimination laws, most notably Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment most often arises in workplaces and involves employment law issues.  

Sexual harassment may involve sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact, but it doesn’t have to.  

In other words, sexually harassing behaviors aren’t necessarily sexual offenses under a state’s criminal law. For example, sexual harassment may consist in treating someone differently because of their gender, as when an employee is denied a promotion because of their gender.  

However, sexual harassment could involve behaviors that are criminal, such as sexual assault. When sexual harassment does involve sex crimes, there can be both a civil case for sexual harassment and a criminal case targeting the sex offenses involved. 

Criminal Charges for Sex Abuse 

Sexual offenses often result in criminal prosecution. Depending on state law, some types of sexual assault may be classified as a misdemeanor. Most often, sexual offenses are felonies.  

A person convicted of a sexual offense could face fines, time in prison, and registration as a sex offender.  

The length of a prison sentence depends on several factors. For example, if the person has committed sex offenses before, the sentence is longer. Aggravated sexual assault, which involves the use of sexual violence and injury, also carry heavier penalties. 

States also maintain sex offender registries that keep track of convicted sex offenders upon their release from prison. Being registered as a sex offender brings lifelong consequences—for example, making it difficult for the person to find employment and restricting where they can live. 

Read this article to learn more about how criminal charges for sexual offenses are proven. 

Civil Cases for Sexual Abuse 

While criminal cases focus on punishing the perpetrator of the sexual offense, civil cases are designed to give the victim of sexual abuse compensation. Known as “damages,” financial compensation in civil cases can cover pain and suffering, emotional distress, and expenses arising from medical care. 

Victims of sexual abuse can pursue a civil lawsuit regardless of a criminal case. Criminal prosecution involves criminal laws and proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, the plaintiff only has to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. 

Read this article to learn more about how civil cases for sexual abuse are proven. 

Compensation in Civil Cases 

 There are two categories of damages in sexual abuse cases, says Robinson:  

  • Economic damages. This category covers medical expenses (such as health care and mental health services) and lost wages and earning potential. 
  • Non-economic damages. The biggest category of damages in sexual abuse matters “is oftentimes the non-economic damages. [These are] for the emotional trauma that the person experiences as a result of being sexually abused as a child, such as post-traumatic stress, ongoing anxiety, and inability to have healthy relationships. These things often affect their ability to work or go to school. It really affects every aspect of a person’s life,” says Robinson.  

Many individuals “feel responsible for bringing [sexual abuse] upon themselves in some fashion,” she says. “This feeling is often caught up in the fact that the person who [sexually abused] them is typically a person in a position of trust—someone who is ratified by the community around them.”  

“The victim [therefore] feels that it must be something they did, since how could it be the respected person’s fault?” 

As a result, says Robinson, “[it can be] very difficult for someone to come forward, because oftentimes they’re not even thinking it’s something they can come forward on. It’s a very complicated dynamic, and it’s actually remarkable that as many people come forward as do come forward, given the difficulty of dealing with it and the traumatic experience.”  

Questions for a Sexual Abuse Lawyer 

If you or a family member has suffered sexual abuse, consider speaking with an experienced lawyer who handles sexual abuse cases. 

Many attorneys provide free consultations to learn about your situation. These initial consultations allow you to receive advice and decide if legal action is the right decision for you. They also allow you to see if the attorney or law firm meets your needs. 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees? 
  • What is the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit? 
  • What sort of help is available to me? 
  • How likely is a settlement before going to trial? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for a sexual abuse attorney in the Super Lawyers directory.

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