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What are the Different Degrees of Sexual Assault?

Lainie Petersen
Updated May 17, 2024
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In law, the different degrees of sexual assault depend entirely upon jurisdiction. The most severe degrees of sexual assault, which usually carry with them the strongest penalties, are often reserved for particularly violent crimes in which lasting bodily harm occurs to the victim or the victim is very young, very old, or cognitively disabled. The degree of sexual assault may also determine whether the crime is considered a felony or misdemeanor under the law.

In jurisdictions that have established degrees of sexual assault, one of several criteria must typically be met in order for the accused to be charged with that particular crime. Sex crimes against the elderly or children are often regarded as extremely serious offenses by lawmakers and law enforcement and are prosecuted accordingly. In places where there are multiple degrees of sexual assault, it is not unusual for the law to prescribe prosecution as the highest degrees for those who sexually assault persons who are younger or older than a certain age, regardless of the crime's other characteristics. The top degrees of sexual assault are likewise reserved for assailants who impregnate their victims or infect them with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), use a deadly weapon, or in which more than one assailant participated in the assault.

Lesser degrees of sexual assault may be characterized by the failure of the assailant to inflict serious injury, beyond the assault itself, on his victim. A sexual assault case may likewise be classified as a lower degree of sexual assault because the assailant did not use a weapon. In the state of Minnesota, the lowest degree of sexual assault is reserved for cases of consensual sex with an underage person, a crime sometimes known as statutory rape.

The term sexual assault is a broad one, and can be used to describe a wide range of sexual crimes. In some places, sexual assault takes the place of the word rape in criminal law. In some areas of the United States, such as the state of Illinois, sexual assault refers to sexual crimes that involve penetration of a victim's mouth, anus, or vagina, while sexual touching and fondling constitute sexual abuse. In other jurisdictions, the term rape is still used to describe an act of non-consensual intercourse or sexual penetration. As such, it is crucial to understand that the term sexual assault has varied meanings and is not always the legal term used to describe a crime in some areas.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Lainie Petersen
By Lainie Petersen , Former Writer
Lainie Petersen, a talented writer, copywriter, and content creator, brings her diverse skill set to her role as an editor. With a unique educational background, she crafts engaging content and hosts podcasts and radio shows, showcasing her versatility as a media and communication professional. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any media organization.

Discussion Comments

By croydon — On Nov 06, 2014

@browncoat - Sexual assault laws are often built around the need to recognize that some people cannot give consent, and that some situations intrinsically affect the ability to say no. I would say that being a teacher or counselor or otherwise in a position of authority might be even more important than the ages of the respective people involved.

The fact that sometimes a rape is seen as a lesser crime because it came about through manipulation rather than from the threat of physical harm seems ridiculous to me, because, if anything, emotionally it would be more devastating to be assaulted by someone you should be able to trust.

By browncoat — On Nov 05, 2014

@bythewell - I do think that statutory assault laws need to be flexible in some cases though. Specifically when it comes to people who are close in age but one might be a couple of months over the line. An eighteen year old should not be sentenced to jail for being intimate with his or her seventeen year old partner.

And when both kids are underage it's even more unfair to just pick on the older of the two as being the guilty party.

By bythewell — On Nov 04, 2014

I remember talking with my father about a case that hit the news quite a few years ago now, where a female teacher had taken advantage of a teenage boy in one of her classes. The media had been treating it as something of a joke, because the assumption was that the boy had experienced a privilege rather than harm, particularly as he was protesting that he had been under no duress.

And my father liked me to think about philosophy, so he asked me why this was being prosecuted as a rape, when the boy had consented.

Basically my answer was that there had to be a line. No matter whether or not the boy was more mature than his age, if you agree to that kind of mitigating factor, the law will never be clear. So they pick a somewhat arbitrary age and then they have to enforce that. And since it isn't exactly a secret that what the teacher did was illegal, she was acting in full knowledge of the law and should have known better, no matter how mature the boy seemed to be or actually was.

Lainie Petersen

Lainie Petersen

Former Writer

Lainie Petersen, a talented writer, copywriter, and content creator, brings her diverse skill set to her role as an...
Learn more
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