Sexual Misconduct Laws, Charges, & Defenses

A person in a position of power commits the crime of sexual misconduct by taking advantage of that position to enter into a sexual relationship with a person under his or her authority. For example, a psychiatrist who has sex with a patient may be charged with sexual misconduct. Some states have specific laws that criminalize sexual misconduct. In other states, sexual misconduct is prohibited under other criminal statutes, such as statutory rape or sexual battery.

The term sexual misconduct may also be used generally, to refer to any sex crime. This article focuses on the narrow meaning of sexual misconduct: criminalized sexual activity between two people whose relationship is not on equal footing.

Sexual Misconduct

Many states have laws that prohibit sexual conduct between people in certain relationships, on the theory that the victim cannot truly consent to such activity because he or she is in some way under the defendant’s influence or authority. These relationships include:

  • doctors and their patients
  • psychologists or counselors and their patients
  • caretakers and children
  • teachers or school employees and students, and
  • probation, parole, or correctional officers and people who are under their authority.

For example, in many states, it is a crime for a foster parent to have sex with a foster child.

Statutory Rape

Statutory rape laws, which prohibit adults from having sex with children, often specifically outlaw sex between adults and children under their control, such as teachers and students. For more information on these crimes, see Statutory Rape Laws, Charges, and Punishments.

Forcible Rape, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Battery

A state’s laws against forcible rape or sexual battery may also cover sexual misconduct because it is considered sex without the victim’s consent. For more information on these crimes, see Rape Laws, Defenses and Penalties and Sexual Battery: Laws and Penalties.

Workplace Policies and Sexual Harassment

In some situations, sexual misconduct may not be illegal, but it may violate a workplace policy. For example, a university professor who engages in sex with an adult student may be violating the university’s internal policies and could be disciplined at work. People who engage in sexual relations with people who work under them can also be sued in civil court for sexual harassment. For more information on sexual harassment, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Defenses

Consent. As in statutory rape cases, in most sexual misconduct cases, it does not matter if the victim consented to the activity or even initiated it, because lawmakers have determined that a person in the victim’s position is legally unable to consent to sex with a person in the defendant’s position.

Marriage. In many states, the fact that the victim and the defendant are married is a defense to a charge of sexual misconduct. This is part of the marital rape defense.

For more information, see Marital Rape Laws and The History of Marital Rape.

Punishment

The punishment for sexual misconduct varies from state to state. It may be a misdemeanor, punishable by a relatively short term (usually less than one year) in county or local jail; or it may be a felony, punishable by a longer term in state prison. People convicted of sexual misconduct may also be required to pay a fine or attend counseling.

Sex Offender Registration

All states have sex offender registration laws that require people convicted of sex crimes to provide personal information, such as their names, addresses, and photographs to local police, who then make this information publicly available. While there is some variety among state registration requirements, adults who have sex with people who are underage and people who have sex with others without their consent are usually required to register.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

In addition to time in prison or jail, sex offender registration, and a serious criminal record, being convicted of sexual misconduct can result in the loss of your job or professional license. If you are charged with sexual misconduct, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney about your case. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and how to best prepare your case and protect your rights.

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