Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

What is First-Degree Sexual Assault?

In the criminal justice system, sexual assault can be classified into different categories. First-degree sexual assault is deemed the most severe type of sexual assault, and states reserve the harshest punishment.

Key Takeaways

  • First-degree sexual assault is categorized as the most severe type of criminal sexual assault, often including rape and sexual assault against children
  • Each state has its own legal definition, but it generally involves non-consensual sexual acts under violent or egregious certain circumstances
  • If you or someone you know was a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Reach out to RAINN.org or contact Helping Survivors to understand your options and rights

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is a crime that occurs when a victim is forced to take part in any sexual activity without their consent. Sexual assault can refer to different crimes of sexual violence, including rape, unlawful sexual conduct, or sexual battery. Sometimes rape is called sexual assault, but sexual assault does not refer to rape exclusively. Sexual battery is also referred to as sexual assault, but again, sexual assault encompasses more than sexual battery.

Sexual assault is a devastating crime affecting millions of people every year. Sexual assault, as defined by RAINN, is “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.” Rape, sodomy, incest, attempted rape, sexual battery, and other sexual conduct are examples of different types of sexual assault.

Sexual assaults can range in severity from first-degree to fourth-degree. First-degree sexual assault is a more serious crime and results in more severe criminal penalties.

The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks the capacity to consent.” Each state may have their own criminal definitions of sexual assault.

The following are examples of sexual assault:

  • Rape (penetration)
  • Attempted rape
  • Unwanted or non-consensual sexual touching
  • Forcing another person to engage in or perform sexual acts
  • Incest

No matter which act was committed against the victim, it is crucial to recognize that it is never the victim’s fault.

What is First-Degree Sexual Assault?

Some states separate sexual assault crimes into degrees. When it comes to criminal offenses, a degree of a crime is the severity of the offense and is determined by the circumstances surrounding the crime along with the offender. First-degree sexual assault is deemed the most severe type of sexual assault, and states reserve the harshest punishment for it compared with second-degree, third-degree, and fourth-degree sexual assault crimes.

Most states that separate sexual assault crimes into degrees included rape as first-degree sexual assault. Sexual assault against children is also considered first-degree sexual assault, although many state legislative codes contain specific statutes for sexual crimes against children.

Remember, all states set their own laws for sexual assault. One state that separates sexual assault crimes into degrees in its criminal code is Alaska. First-degree sexual assault in Alaska is defined as rape (sexual penetration), attempted rape that resulted in an injury, or rape where the perpetrator held a certain status over the victim or where the victim could not give consent due to mental incapacity or being unaware of the sexual act.

Last Date Modified
March 18, 2024
Content Reviewed By:

Kathryn Kosmides
Managing Director | Helping Survivors

If you are not sure where to turn, RAINN can help.

Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk confidentially with a trained professional from RAINN.

They can put you in touch with local resources and organizations that can help in your healing journey.

What are the Elements of Sexual Assault?

For a criminal case to be brought against an attacker, the prosecution must prove the elements of the sexual assault crime. While the elements of sexual assault will vary depending on state law, the essential elements include the following:

  1. The victim was forced to engage in some type of sexual activity.
  2. The victim did not give their consent.

Sexual Activity

The forced sexual activity you were forced to endure could have been sexual intercourse (penetration), sexual battery, touching of a sexual nature, or being forced to engage in sexual acts or perform sexual acts on your assailant.

Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. Age, gender, and sexual orientation do not matter. And it does not matter who your assailant is. They could be a stranger or someone you know, and they could be the same gender as you or a different gender.


Consent is one of the main issues surrounding sexual assault cases. Any sexual activity engaged in without your consent is a crime. An individual must knowingly and voluntarily give consent and have the capacity to make such a decision. If you did not consent to sexual activity with another person, you have been sexually assaulted.

Consent is not implied. Just because you did not say anything during the attack does not mean you gave consent. Just because you did not resist does not mean you gave consent. And just because you gave consent to sexual activity in the past does not mean that you gave consent for all other times in the future.

If you were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, you could not have given consent. You cannot have given consent when you were unconscious. If you were passed out or sleeping, you could not give consent.

Consent must be affirmatively given. And even when it is given, you can revoke your consent at any time. If you initially consented to the sexual activity and changed your mind, you revoked your consent. Anything that happened after was without consent and, therefore, is a sexual assault.

What are the Statute of Limitations for Sexual Assault?

Statute of limitations is the legal terminology to describe the window of time after a sexual assault during which charges can be brought against the assailant, attacker, or rapist. State governments set their own statutes of limitations for various sex crimes.

Depending on the state, the statute of limitations period may begin on the date of the assault, when the report is assaulted, or one the assaulted is recognized by the victim. Once the statute of limitations expires, you can no longer bring criminal charges against the attacker. The statute of limitations for sexual assault can be three years, five years, or ten years. However, some states do not have a statute of limitations for sexual assault cases. That means that prosecutors can press charges — and victims can bring a sexual assault claim — at any time.

Lastly, even if the statute of limitations has run out, some states allow the case to be reopened and charges brought against an attacker if newly discovered DNA evidence is found.

If you have questions about the statute of limitations for a sexual assault, you can consult a sexual assault victim’s advocate or a sexual assault attorney in your area. They can give you specific information as it pertains to your situation and state and help you take the next steps to move forward in the legal process.

What You Can Do if You Are a Victim of Sexual Assault

if you are in immediate danger, call 911 for the police and immediate medical attention. If the situation is not an emergency and there is no threat of danger, you can call a hotline or local government advocate. They can help you with many things, from reporting your sexual assault to the police to helping you find a safe place to stay.

It is essential that you see a medical professional as soon as possible. A doctor will treat any injuries you sustained during the sexual assault. Even if there are no apparent injuries, there may be internal bleeding or other injuries that are not obvious. You also want to ensure you get tested for any sexually transmitted infections your assailant may have had.

Additionally, try to preserve any evidence of the sexual assault. Before you go to the police station or a hospital, do not shower or change clothes, even though that might be uncomfortable. Your doctor will also preserve any evidence of the sexual assault for use in a criminal trial if you decide to report the assault to the police. You can have a medical exam performed and get STD treatment and whether you report to the police is entirely up to you unless there is a mandatory reporting situation (typically when children are involved). You can contact an advocate and have them explain the laws and process in your state.

Surviving a sexual assault is a deeply traumatic experience that can result in harmful mental effects such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. There are many support groups for survivors of sexual violence. You can talk to your medical provider about therapy options and support programs or contact a hotline.

And never forget, if you were the victim of a sexual assault, it was not your fault. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or via online chat at www.rainn.org for assistance.

Want To Speak With A Lawyer?

Understand your legal rights and options as a survivor of sexual assault and abuse.