Sexual Battery: Laws and Penalties

Learn how state criminal laws define and punish sexual battery.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated February 26, 2024

States define sex crimes differently, but most distinguish sex crimes involving penetration (vaginal, oral, or anal) from sex crimes involving unlawful contact or touching. The latter offense—nonconsensual sexual contact or touching—is a type of sexual assault, often referred to as "sexual battery."

What Is Sexual Battery?

Sexual battery is commonly defined as nonconsensual contact or touching of another's intimate parts for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification or to humiliate or harm the victim. It also includes unlawfully causing a victim to touch their own, another's, or the offender's intimate parts.

Defining Intimate Parts

States often define intimate parts to include genitals, the genital area, inner thighs, buttocks, and female breasts, as well as the clothing directly covering these areas.

Defining Consent and Lack of Consent

Sexual contact becomes criminal when a person does not consent to it. For consent to be valid under the law, it must be affirmative and freely given by someone capable of giving consent. If any of these elements is missing, there's no consent.

For instance, a victim's consent isn't valid if the offender used threats, coercion, or lies to obtain consent because it wasn't freely given. The law also doesn't recognize consent given by someone who lacks the capacity to consent—legally, physically, or mentally. Most state laws provide that children under a certain age (such as 15 or 16) cannot legally consent to sexual activity. Also, a person who is unconscious, drugged, intoxicated, or has a mental or developmental impairment doesn't have the physical or mental capacity to consent.

What Are Examples of Sexual Battery?

Examples of sexual battery include the following acts done without consent:

  • fondling a person's genitals
  • forcing a person to touch the offender's genitals
  • grabbing a woman's breasts
  • grabbing a person's buttocks, or
  • sliding a hand down the inside of a person's thigh or groin area.

If the offender physically harms or drugs the victim or uses their position of authority over the victim (such as a therapist, doctor, coach, or clergy member), the crime might be considered aggravated sexual battery and carry harsher penalties. Other aggravating factors might include physically restraining a victim, using or threatening the victim with a weapon, or engaging in sexual touching with a very young child (for instance, under the age of 13).

What Are the Penalties for Sexual Battery?

The penalties for sexual battery vary greatly from state to state. Generally, the penalties for sexual battery are less severe than those for sexual crimes involving penetration. However, many states still punish sexual battery as felonies, serious misdemeanors, or both. Some states divide sexual battery offenses into degrees or have an aggravated offense.

Penalties for Aggravated Sexual Battery

Sexual battery involving aggravating factors (such as the examples listed above) typically carries felony penalties. Aggravated penalties may also apply if an offender has a prior conviction for the same or similar offense.

Felony penalties carry the possibility of prison time. While the maximum penalty varies, a convicted defendant could face anywhere from a couple of years to a decade in prison, plus stiff fines. Certain offenders (such as first-time felons) might be eligible for probation. In most states, a conviction for aggravated sexual battery will require sex offender registration.

Penalties for Sexual Battery

Some states provide misdemeanor or low-level felony penalties for sexual battery convictions that don't involve aggravating factors. In most states, a misdemeanor carries up to a year of jail time, sometimes more. Low-level felonies might have maximum prison sentences of two to five years. While sex offender registration laws vary, felony sexual battery or any sex offense involving a child will usually require registration.

Defenses to Sexual Battery Charges

Possible defenses to sexual battery charges depend on the circumstances involved.

Innocence. A defendant might argue that the authorities have the wrong person. For example, a defendant might raise an alibi defense or argue that the victim is mistaken in their identification of the perpetrator.

Consent. A defendant might argue that the other person consented to the sexual touching or that they had no reason to know the person couldn't consent. Consent is not a defense when the victim is under the age of consent.

Mistake of age. For age-based offenses, the law might permit the defendant to raise a mistake-of-age defense. For instance, a state law may allow a defendant to assert that they reasonably believed the other person was older than the legal age of consent.

Lack of intent. Some states' laws require that the prosecutor prove sexual or aggressive intent on the part of the defendant. If the prosecution can't establish every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge or jury should acquit. For instance, a defendant might argue that the touching was accidental and not sexual or offensive.

Sexual Battery Laws by State

Get state-specific information for sexual battery laws and penalties for the following states.

Talk to a Lawyer About Your Sexual Battery Case

If you're facing an investigation or charges for sexual battery, talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A conviction can mean incarceration, fines, sex offender registration, and loss of professional licenses. Even charges that don't result in a conviction can negatively impact one's life. It's best to consult an attorney before agreeing to talk to the police or an investigator.

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