Sexual Misconduct Laws, Charges, & Defenses

People in a position of authority, such as teachers, church pastors, or physicians, who engage in sexual activity with someone under their authority can be charged with the crime of sexual misconduct and face a jail or prison sentence, as well as other serious consequences.

People use the term "sexual misconduct" to generally refer to any sex crime. A more narrow and legalistic use of the term refers to sexual activity between two people where one person is in a position of authority or trust vis a vis the other. Someone abusing a position of authority or trust to have a sexual relationship with another has committed a form of sexual misconduct.

For example, a psychiatrist or psychologist who has sex with a patient, and a person who has sex with a minor, can be charged with sexual misconduct.

Types of Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct crimes include sexual activity between people in certain relationships, statutory rape, and other sexual offenses.

Sexual Misconduct When the Balance of Power is Skewed

Laws that prohibit sexual conduct between people in certain relationships are based on the rationale 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,
  • foster parents and their foster children, and
  • probation, parole, or correctional officers and people who are under their authority.

Statutory Rape

Statutory rape laws, which prohibit sex with minors under a certain age -- such as fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen years old -- often also specifically outlaw sex between adults and minors under their control, such as teachers and students. Statutory rape laws are premised on the theory that young people are not mature enough to make informed decisions regarding sexual activity.

Forcible Rape, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Battery

A state’s laws against forcible rape or sexual battery may also include 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 a criminal act, 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 also can be sued in civil court for sexual harassment. For more information on sexual harassment, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Defenses

In most sexual misconduct cases, as in statutory rape cases, the victim's consent to the activity (even when the victim initiated it) is not a defense to the charge. Lawmakers have determined that a person in the victim’s position is legally unable to consent to sex with a person in a position of authority or trust.

In some states, marriage used to be a defense to forcible rape and related crimes, but it is no longer. For more information, see Marital Rape Laws and The History of Marital Rape.

Punishment

The punishment for sexual misconduct varies from state to state and depends on the classification of the crime. Sexual misconduct 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. A person convicted of sexual misconduct also may be required to pay a fine, attend counseling, and/or register as a sex offender, as discussed below.

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 usually are required to register. Whether a person convicted of sexual misconduct will be required to register as a sex offender will depend on the law in the state where the offense was committed.

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, prepare a defense in your case, and assist you in protecting your rights.

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