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More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.

What is Second-Degree Sexual Assault?

Second-degree sexual assault is a legal term used within the criminal justice system usually to define cases in which the power dynamic between an adult perpetrator and an adult victim is considered unequal at the time of the crime or when the sexual contact resulted in injury to the victim.

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Key Takeaways

  • Second degree sexual assault is a specific criminal charge in some jurisdictions across the United States and typically involves either a power dynamic between an adult perpetrator and an adult victim and/or the sexual contact resulted in injury to the victim
  • Within the US, each state may define second-degree sexual assault differently and the statute of limitations may vary across each jurisdiction
  • If you were a victim of sexual assault, understanding the different criminal classifications for sexual assault can help you understand your reporting rights and options

Sexual assault, as defined by RAINN, is “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim.”

In terms of the law, there can be varying degrees of sexual assault, such as first-degree or second-degree sexual assault.

Second-degree sexual assault typically involves an adult victim who could not give consent because of physical or mental incapacitations or an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim. If you or someone you care about has recently been a victim of sexual assault, it’s important to know what qualifies as second-degree sexual assault.

Since sexual assault is a crime charged at the state level, legal definitions and penalties will vary by state. What constitutes second-degree sexual assault will depend on many factors, including:

  • The state where the crime was committed
  • The defendant’s previous criminal history
  • The impact the crime has on the victim and their family members
  • The physical and mental capacity of the victim during the crime

Elements of Second-Degree Sexual Assault

When it’s determined that an adult victim of sexual assault was unable to give consent because of physical or mental incapacitation at the time of the crime or if there was an imbalance of power between the defendant and the victim, the perpetrator will most likely be charged with second-degree sexual assault. Examples might include an adult victim who:

  • Was under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Has a developmental disability, mental disorder, or chemical dependence issue
  • Was assaulted by a person in a caregiving role at the time of the assault, such as a client or patient of a health care provider
  • Was assaulted by a person in a position of authority over them, such as an incarcerated individual being assaulted by a guard
  • Was assaulted by a person in a position of trust, such as a teacher
  • Is considered elderly or physically vulnerable
  • Sustained physical injuries as a result of the assault

While a second-degree sexual assault can involve physical force, perpetrators may also use threats, coercion, blackmail, manipulation, and intimidation to overpower their victims. Agreeing to sexual activities in order to obtain basic needs like shelter, food, or clothing is not consent. Likewise, a perpetrator who threatens to hurt a victim’s family members in order to coerce them into sexual contact is guilty of sexual assault.

Penalties for second-degree sexual assault include long prison sentences and heavy monetary fines. In most states, second-degree sexual assault is a Class A felony, which can receive a sentence of up to life in prison, depending on the circumstances of the case.

Last Date Modified
May 17, 2024

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How are Criminal Sexual Assault Charges Determined?

State legislatures use degrees of crimes designations to describe the severity of sex crimes committed in their states. These designations help judges determine sentencing penalties for individuals convicted of sexual assault.

Most cases of first and second-degree sexual assault, which are reserved for the most serious criminal offenses and carry the harshest consequences. The National District Attorneys Association gives a state-by-state comparison of statutes that address sexual assault charges.

First-degree sexual assault: Sex crimes involving sexual penetration of a victim’s body and those committed against minors typically receive a classification of first-degree sexual assault and carry the stiffest penalties a state can impose. This is also true when sexual assault is committed in conjunction with other felonies, such as kidnapping, unlawful restraint, or murder.

Second-degree sexual assault: Nonconsensual sexual encounters will often be charged in the second degree when the balance of power is unequal due to an adult victim’s physical, mental, or psychological limitations or when the attack resulted in injury to the victim.

Third-degree sexual assault: This misdemeanor charge is often used when consent between two adults is in question or when the victim wasn’t physically injured.

Statutes of Limitations for Second-Degree Sexual Assault

The amount of time that a victim has to press charges for second-degree sexual assault is called the statute of limitations and is determined by individual states. In some states, the statute of limitations begins from the date that the crime occurred, with a period of three years after.

Other states may begin the statute of limitations period on the date an assault was reported to law enforcement. If the victim waited a significant length of time between the assault and reporting it, there may be a shorter statute of limitations.

In some cases, state legislatures have eliminated the statute of limitations for felony sexual assault crimes, especially when the victim is a vulnerable adult. This allows victims and their families to press charges against perpetrators years or decades after a crime was committed.

If you have questions about the statute of limitations for second-degree sexual assault in your state, it’s a good idea to consult a sexual assault victim’s advocate or an attorney who specializes in criminal cases in your area. They will give you specific information as it pertains to your situation and state, guide you on any statutes of limitations that apply to your case, and help you take the next steps to move forward in the legal process.

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