Sex Crimes

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Sex Crimes

The term sex crimes is a rubric attached to a number of different types of criminal offenses that are or may be construed as sexual. A criminal offense is an act that has been defined as illegal by a legislative body. Sex crimes consist of a range of illegal acts involving the commission of sexual acts on others without their permission, the use of violence to gain sexual ends, or the commission of sexual acts on those who cannot under the law give permission, such as children, family members, or employees. Sex crimes may also consist of acts that have been deemed immoral by legislatures but that involve others only with their consent, including prostitution, viewing or producing pornography, adultery or polygamy, or engaging in nonreproductive sexual acts such as sodomy or homosexuality.

Most state penal codes cover a number of sex crimes, but these crimes are rarely defined as such. Rather, they exist scattered through legislation, depending more on the context, character, or victim of the crime than that the crime is in some way linked to sexual ends. Specific crimes that may be considered sex crimes include adultery, assault, bestiality, compelling to marry, domestic violence, gross indecency, indecent exposure, incest, lewd behavior, sexual murder, necrophilia, pedophilia, pimping, polygamy, pornography and other forms of speech, prostitution, public lewdness, rape, sodomy, stalking, and sexual intercourse as a part of medical treatment.


Such acts as indecent exposure or exhibitionism, voyeurism, sexual touching, stalking and Internet stalking, sexual assault and rape, domestic violence, and abuse by caregivers involve the attempted imposition of sexual behaviors and desires on others who are unaware of the attention, who are unwilling participants in an exchange involving sexual behaviors, or who have no power to refuse unwanted attentions. Most of these actions involve some degree of violence or the threat of violence and it may be argued are less sexual crimes than they are crimes of anger or power.

Indecent exposure and voyeurism are threatening but are perhaps the least violent of these crimes. Indecent exposure involves someone, most often a male, exhibiting his sexual parts to an unwilling bystander. Because European and North American cultures in particular do not comprehend males as the unwilling recipients of such exhibitions, the crime of indecent exposure is rarely committed by females. Voyeurism involves those, again usually males, commonly called peeping toms, who trespass in order to steal a look at unwitting female victims who are simply living in their own homes or who are using facilities, such as bathrooms, considered to be private. Voyeurism may be a way for the criminal to gain sexual pleasure or may sometimes be a part of a pattern of increasingly violent behaviors, including stalking, rape, and murder.

Stalking and Internet stalking involve someone paying unwanted attention to an individual. Stalking may involve everything from persistent mailing, telephoning, and harassing, to visits, home entries, and physical attacks and murders. Generally, stalking involves repeat victimization in which the same person is forced repeatedly to suffer the fear, anxiety, lack of freedom, and stress of someone else's predations. Although celebrities are the most notorious victims of stalking, stalking may happen to anyone. In 2006 one out of every twelve women and one out of every forty-five men is a stalking victim. The large majority of victims are thus women (78%), whereas the majority of perpetrators are men (87%). Stalkers are often irrational and have little understanding of boundaries and privacy. They may be former spouses or partners, have some other connection to the victim, or be total strangers.

Sexual assault and rape are usually classified as criminal sexual conduct and are codified in a set of decreasing degrees of severity—first degree being the most serious and carrying the highest penalty. First-degree criminal sexual conduct involves the forced sexual penetration of someone else that involves additional injury and harm. The victims are defined not only as any single person, but also as belonging to one of the categories on a list of specially defined victims that includes children, household members, friends (date rape), and incapacitated people. The perpetrators occupy specific relations of trust to the victims, such as parents, teachers, or relatives, and use weapons, help from others, drugs, or threats. Lesser degrees of sexual assault and rape are defined either by the lack of a special relation of trust between perpetrator and victim or by a lesser degree of violence, coercion, and injury. All rape is serious and is understood by many to be a crime of vengeance and rage rather than a crime of sex.

The crime of rape has mobilized communities and groups of women to recognize that rape is a violent crime and to remove the stigma of imagined cooperation that often lingers with victims. It has traditionally been difficult to prosecute rape cases because of the ways the criminal justice system permitted evidence of the victim's sexual history to be introduced at trial, humiliating the witness and suggesting that the crime was in fact a sexual one. Improved forensic technologies have made the prosecution of rape cases easier, as has an increased understanding of the crime.

Domestic violence and assaults committed on dates that do not include sexual penetrations are part of a more general crime called assault. Assault occurs when one person inflicts harm on someone else. Harm may be only verbal, such as name calling, or include physical damage, sometimes called battery. Many states provide specific provisions for assaults occurring between people in domestic or romantic relationships. Domestic violence is particularly dangerous because of the familiarity of the parties and the victim's loss of safety. The emotional involvement of the parties often confuses the victim, who may feel guilty or feel that she or he caused the other's behavior.

In general the law considers children to be unable to give consent to any kind of sexual conduct. There are, thus, special laws defining sexual crimes against children. In most states, for example, having sexual intercourse with any person under the age of sixteen is considered statutory rape. Under the law minors are deemed not to be capable of consenting to sex, so that even if a minor consents, the sexual intercourse is a rape because the victim could not legally consent. The same logic applies to other degrees of sexual assault.

The law is particularly harsh on those who sexually abuse, rape, kidnap, and/or murder children. Although a desire for sexual encounters with children is often a sexual preference, children's inability to give consent or even to defend themselves against predators makes such crimes particularly outrageous to the public. Convicted pedophiles, particularly those who employ violence, must undergo extensive therapy and are often abused by other inmates in prison; some have been chemically castrated. When released from prison these sex offenders must report their presence in a neighborhood in some jurisdictions. Others are forbidden from having contact with children.

Many states have laws protecting minors from exposure to any kind of obscenity. It may, for example, be illegal to sell pornography to minors or to exhibit any kind of obscene material where children may see it. In addition it is generally a crime to make or even look at pornography that features children as sexual objects or witnesses. This kind of material is considered to be child sexual abusive material, and anyone involved with the production, distribution, sale, or importation of such material is criminally liable.

Although incest, or sexual intercourse with a relative, is not limited to children, children are especially vulnerable. Also, laws are especially harsh on those who misuse positions of trust, such as adult family members, teachers, and medical professionals. Some states have special laws prohibiting sexual conduct between doctors and patients and most have special provisions in statutes defining sexual assault dealing with assault by teachers, family members, friends, and others in positions of trust.


Many acts that are considered to be sex crimes involve parties who participate in such acts willingly. These crimes relate to issues of marriage and infidelity, non-reproductive sexual activities, prostitution and pandering, and pornography and obscenity.

Crimes surrounding marriage include adultery, defined as sexual intercourse between two persons, one of whom is married to a third person; polygamy, or being married to more than one person at a time; compelling a woman to marry by force; and, in some states, having sexual relations outside of marriage. This last crime is referred to as gross lewdness or lewd and lascivious cohabitation. Some of the statutes are rarely enforced as crimes because in many places, concepts of morality have changed or victims of such crimes have other remedies, such as divorce.

Nonreproductive sexual activities are often deemed immoral. They include all homosexual activities, some kinds of sexual activities between consenting heterosexual married couples, and sexual activity with the dead or the nonhuman. Sodomy, considered by some as a crime against nature, is defined as the penetration of an inappropriate (i.e., nonvaginal) orifice, including those of animals. Some states have repealed laws against sodomy between consenting adults, whereas others have extended the definition of sodomy to include oral sex between women. In addition there are also statutes prohibiting gross indecency, a catchall rubric that covers almost any kind of homosexual behavior between men or between women, and some kinds of sexual behavior between heterosexuals, including, presumably, sodomy and oral sex, but may include other kinds of nonreproductive sexual acts. Most states have laws prohibiting desecration of the dead, which includes any kind of sexual activity, or necrophilia. Some states also have laws against the abuse of animals, which may include bestiality, or having sex with them.

Prostitution, or offering sexual encounters for money, is generally illegal in the United States except in parts of Nevada, but it is legal in some parts of Europe. Laws against prostitution apply both to those offering the services and those purchasing them. They also apply to those who facilitate the sales—the pimps or madams who run the street business, provide protection, or manage houses where clients purchase the services of prostitutes. Although prostitution occurs between consenting adults, the sale of sexual favors by males or females to males or females is deemed immoral and is, hence, criminal.

Obscenity and pornography, apart from any involvement with or display to minors, may itself be a criminal activity. What constitutes pornography is often an issue for a locality to decide based on its own local standards of what may be obscene. Most locales permit the sale of pornography only within restricted premises. Some permit strip shows and other sexual entertainment at facilities that control entry. Some communities do not permit either the sale or display of obscene material at all. The Internet has become a popular means for distributing pornographic material, mostly because it can be purchased and consumed in private and in some anonymity.

Although masturbation is not a crime unless performed publicly, in some jurisdictions owning sex toys, sex aids, or other sexual material is illegal. It is also illegal in some states to advertise such materials, as well as contraceptives and cures for genital ills. Many states also have catchall statutes called sexual delinquency or something similar that focus on repeat sexual offenders or on actions that may not fit within other indecency statutes.


Through history public concepts of the kinds of acts that might constitute sex crimes has broadened, and responsibility for defining and preventing some sex crimes has shifted from the church to the state. Some sex crimes were previously considered the natural domain of marriage (e.g., wife beating, involuntary sexual intercourse), whereas others—crimes involving technology, stalking, pornography—are more modern inventions. The age of consensual sex shifts from culture to culture and through history, becoming gradually older in Europe and North America. Greek culture did not necessarily understand sex between men as a crime, whereas religions deriving from the Bible condemned sodomy and bestiality as acts but did not acknowledge sex between women at all. Adultery was the province of the church, whereas understandings of what degrees of relation were incestuous have changed from culture to culture.

Public attention to crimes involving sexual behavior, domestic violence, and obscenity has only gradually come within the province of the state. The state's definition of such crimes is very much linked to contemporaneous notions of morality and proper gender relations. How cultures have understood rape, for example, has evolved significantly in the last 100 years. Before the twentieth century, rape was considered heinous but was not as often recognized in the law as it is under twenty-first-century legislation. Because rape was understood as a sex crime, the victim was often held as responsible as the perpetrator. If there was not physical damage beyond penetration, the rape was often not prosecuted. Date rape was inconceivable primarily because the victims were understood to have consented to the behavior. Male rape of other males was not acknowledged until into the twentieth century. Domestic violence and rape were seen as the province and sometimes even the marital duty of the husband.

Tolerance for prostitution and obscenity, too, has changed from culture to culture and through history. Whereas Greek and Roman culture permitted prostitution, and some countries, such as Japan, ceremonialized some aspects of it in the geisha, Christian countries tended to take a less open view. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have come to understand that when controlled and monitored, prostitution is a safer business than when illegal. Nonetheless, greater tolerance for prostitution in some locations and greater demand for prostitutes in others has increased the international trafficking of women who are essentially enslaved as prostitutes. It has long been illegal in the United States to transport underage women across state lines for immoral purposes.

Laws concerning pornography also vary from locale to locale. Relatively modern techniques of printing and photography have made the distribution of pornography much easier and more profitable, making pornography a big business since the nineteenth century. The easing of moral restrictions on sexual content has made pornography more visible, as has ease of access on the Internet. Child pornography, however, has become increasingly taboo, whereas nudity, language that might previously have been understood as obscene, and explicit references to sex and sexual organs have become commonplace on television.

The criminality of other sex crimes continues to depend largely on the relation of religious belief to state action. For example, in countries such as Nigeria where religion strictly prohibits adultery, adulterers may be stoned to death. In certain places homosexual males may be executed. And in some locales polygamy is legal.


In the early twenty-first century a sexual assault occurs in the United States every two minutes. The contemporary frequency of sex crimes has as much to do with the increased number of sexual acts defined as crimes as with increased urbanization and crowding, less repressive environments, increased frustration and depersonalization, and the expected mobility and social exposure of women, who are the primary victims of assaults. It is also due to increased reporting of such crimes, particularly sexual assaults upon men. Despite increased reporting the rate of sexual assault and rape declined slightly between 1996 and 2002. In 1996 1 man out of every 2,500 was a victim of sexual assault, whereas in 2002 that figure had decreased to 1 in every 3,300. In 1996 5.75 women out of 2,500 were victims of sexual assault and rape, whereas in 2002 the figure had dropped to 4.5. Other sex crimes, such as stalking and crimes committed on children, have increased, partly because the Internet has provided criminals easier access to their targets.


Hickey, Eric W. 2005. Sex Crimes and Paraphilia. New York: Prentice Hall.

Holmes, Ronald M., and Stephen T. Holmes, eds. 2002. Current Perspectives on Sex Crimes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Searles, Patricia, and Ronald J. Berger, eds. 1995. Rape and Society: Readings on the Problem of Sexual Assault. Boulder, CO: Westview.

                                                    Judith Roof