What You Need to Know About Washington State Sexual Assault Laws

In the modern world, where both increased sexual freedom and campaigns like the #metoo movement compete for cultural bandwidth, it can be surprisingly difficult to know what sorts of behaviors constitute sexual assault and what behaviors are consensual. How far is too far?

While intimacy in human relationships will always be fraught with complications, ultimately the law defines sexual assault and penalizes sexual behavior accordingly. If you live in Seattle, the greater Puget Sound Region, or any other part of Washington State, having a good understanding of Washington law on sexual assault can help you both police your own behavior and know when someone else has crossed the line. Knowing what constitutes safe and consensual sex under the law helps to keep everybody safer and healthier.

What does “sexual assault” mean in Washington?

RCW 9A.44.010 defines “forcible compulsion” as “physical force which overcomes resistance, or a threat, express or implied, that places a person in fear of death or physical injury to herself or himself or another person.” “Consent” under Washington law means that “at the time of the act of sexual contact there are actual words or conduct indicating freely given agreement to have sexual contact.” Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault, even if sexual intercourse did not actually occur. This means criminal sexual assault can happen even without actual rape if the conduct was sexual in nature, forceful, and unwanted by the recipient.

We’re in a relationship—can sexual assault still happen between us?

Contrary to common assumptions, sexual assault can happen between people who are dating or in a relationship—even if the relationship is marriage.

Marriage was once a bar to a sexual assault prosecution, but the centuries when a husband was entitled to sex with his wife whenever he wanted it are over. Consent is needed in marriage as much as in a sexual encounter between people who’ve just met.

Under the law, it’s not the nature of the relationship that counts, but whether the sexual conduct was consensual and between adults who were not physically or mentally incapacitated.

What about sex with teenagers?

The law in Washington (as in most U.S. jurisdictions) presumes that children are not old enough or mature enough to consent to sexual activity. These rules get tricky where teenagers who want to be sexually active with each other are concerned. Washington’s rape laws have tried to reflect a sensible, realistic approach to the reality of teens making consensual decisions about sex with other teens.

Under Washington Law, teens can consent to sex with each other. However, when the age difference widens, an adult with whom a teen has engaged in sexual activity can be found guilty of rape of a child in the third degree, even if the sex was “consensual.” For an adult, it’s safest to engage in sex only with people you know for a fact to be over the age of 18.

What other kinds of conduct constitute sex offenses in Washington?

States sometimes classify certain other behaviors which don’t involve sexual contact as sex offenses. For instance, in Washington State, voyeurism and communicating with a minor (usually online) in a way that takes on sexual connotations are sex offenses. This means that a conviction for one of these offenses can result in the duty to register as a sex offender, which can affect many aspects of everyday life for decades.

When do I need an attorney?

While the best way to avoid getting into trouble for sexual assault is to know the law and be careful to follow it, sometimes accusations happen anyway. If you’ve been charged with a sex offense or are the target of an investigation in Washington, The Marshall Defense Firm is here to help. Our experienced, skilled team of defense attorneys would be happy to discuss your case with you. Please contact us at 206.826.1400 or solutions@marshalldefense.com to schedule a consultation.

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