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.