The laws about sexual harassment and assault in California can be complex. However, you should know your legal rights, and how to seek justice, if you’re affected by sexual violence.

As a civil law firm, our attorneys can help you seek damages for sexual assault. Below, we explain how California’s sexual assault laws work and how they protect you. We also cover the differences between criminal and civil actions, and how we can help.

If you’re at all concerned about your safety, contact law enforcement immediately. Sex crimes are too serious to ignore. But if you have questions about making a sexual assault case, call the May Firm for a free consultation.

What Is Sexual Assault?

First, let’s explain what sexual assault means in California.

California’s Penal Code defines sexual assault as touching another person intimately without their consent. Sexual assault can be in public or in private, and the definition includes a wide range of actions.

From a legal perspective, there are four elements to a sexual assault offense:  

  • Intent 
  • Physical act 
  • Intimate contact 
  • Lack of consent

It’s crucial to define what these elements mean to bring a case against the perpetrator.


“Intent” means an intent to cause sexual abuse. This could be for the perpetrator’s own sexual gratification. However, it can also be an intent to humilitate, intimidate, or injure the victim.

Unhappy woman waving away man placed hand on her knee workplace harassment

So, even if the perpetrator gains no sexual pleasure from the abuse, it’s enough if they want to shame the victim. An example would be forcing the victim to touch themselves, or perform a sexual act on themselves.

It’s also a crime to force someone to touch another person, including the perpetrator. This is not sexual assault in the strictest sense but it is a related crime.

Physical Contact

“Physical contact” means direct or indirect touching. It can be through clothing or bare skin. What matters is that there’s physical contact. So, for example, this includes touching a person’s genitalia through their clothing, or rubbing against them.

Body Parts

“Intimate” body parts are female breasts, the groin, or any sexual organ. It also includes the buttocks.

Without Consent

CA sexual assault laws prohibit someone from touching another person intimately against their will. And there’s no consent unless the victim acts freely and voluntarily, in full knowledge of what they’re doing. So, for example, a mentally incapacitated person cannot legally consent to sexual contact.

Types of Sexual Assault

There are many forms of sexual assault. The most common types of assault and unwanted sexual contact include: 

  • Attempted rape  
  • Forced penetration 
  • Inappropriate touching or fondling 
  • Rape 
  • Unwanted kissing

Other forms of sexual assault include incest, groping, and sex crimes involving minors.

Sexual assault can happen anywhere. This crime knows no boundaries. However, it commonly occurs in workplaces, care settings, and against young people.

Sexual Assault and Rape

Is rape considered a form of sexual assault? In a technical sense, yes. It is a sex crime and involves unwanted physical contact.

However, rape is more specific than sexual assault. It is an act of forced sexual intercourse, rather than touching. Forcing includes physical or verbal threats.

Sexually penetrating another without consent is a serious crime in CA.

Felony vs. Misdemeanor Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can be a felony or misdemeanor. The penalties vary considerably, depending on the charges brought against the perpetrator. 

  • Misdemeanor: Sexual assault is often a “misdemeanor” in CA. This means it may be punished by up to six months in jail and/or fines of up to $2,000.  
  • Felony: Sexual assault may be a felony. This is usually for cases with “aggravating factors”. The punishment is usually state imprisonment and/or up to $10,000 in fines.

Aggravating Factors

Aggravating factors elevate a crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. In sexual assault cases, aggravating factors include: 

  • Unlawful restraint. 
  • Fradulent misrepresentation of the behavior e.g. pretending that the touch is a normal part of a massage. 
  • Abuse of someone medically incapacitated or institutionalized. 
  • The victim must touch themselves or the perpetrator while incapacitated or unlawfully restrained.

Rape is always a felony charge in CA.

When Is There a Civil Case for Sexual Assault?

CA law allows sexual assault victims to file a civil lawsuit against their abuser. This is true even if you choose not to file criminal charges. Civil and criminal cases are completely different, so you can pursue one without the other.

Criminal vs. Civil Sexual Assault Claims

The criminal case punishes a perpetrator through the criminal courts. This may involve jail time, counseling, and fines. The civil lawsuit is for compensation. This compensation covers a range of losses, including: 

  • Lost income 
  • Therapy bills 
  • Medical expenses 

You can also claim damages for pain and suffering, or emotional injuries. While no amount of money can make up for what happened, damages can help you move forward. They can give you a sense of closure.

Sexual Harassment vs. Sexual Assault

We often hear the terms “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault” used interchangeably. However, they do mean different things.

Woman leaning forward closeup hands clasped anxious unhappy after harassment

Sexual harassment is broader than sexual assault. It includes any unwanted conduct, such as advances, and creating a hostile work environment. Even jokes or comments may be considered harassment.

At the May Firm, our experienced attorneys can explain what type of claim you may have after hearing the facts.

Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Battery

Sexual battery is an alternative name for sexual assault. It’s a term used in the CA Penal Code but it can be considered the same crime.

California Statute of Limitations for Sexual Assault

There are, sometimes, time limits for reporting sex crimes in CA. Beyond this time limit, you may be unable to file charges or seek compensation. The key rules are as follows. 

  • There’s no time limit for reporting rape.  
  • You can report ongoing sexual abuse of a child at any time.

There are time limits for sexual assault crimes, as we’ll detail below.

Reporting Sexual Assault Time Limit

  • Civil claims: Within 10 years from the date of the act. Or, within three years of discovering a physical/emotional injury caused by the act.  
  • Criminal claims: Typically within 10 years of the offense (for adult victims i.e. aged 18 and over). 
  • Minors: Minor can file charges up to their 40th birthday.

There are many nuances involved in determining the time limits in sex crime cases. You should retain legal advice as soon as possible for more guidance on this.

The Importance of Reporting Sexual Assault

It’s natural to be wary about reporting sexual assault. However, for your own recovery, it’s vitally important that you do so. 

  • Reporting a sex crime gives the power back to you. It puts you in control again.  
  • When you report sexual assault, you’re giving yourself permission to move beyond what happened. You’re acknowledging the harm you suffered and taking a step forward.  
  • Reporting sex crimes holds abusers accountable. It promotes justice across CA.

How to Report Assault and Abuse

To report sexual assault, take the following action: 

  • If you’re in a dangerous situation, prioritize your safety. Move to a safe location if possible. 
  • Contact a sexual assault lawyer. They can help you understand your legal rights and build a case.  
  • Tell the police. The sooner you report the crime, the easier it is to preserve evidence. However, it’s never too late to speak up.  
  • Gather evidence. If you can, preserve anything which supports your case. This includes messages, pictures, clothing, or evidence of your injuries.

It’s never too early to call the May Firm. Call us now if you need assistance with California sexual assault laws.

Do You Need a Sexual Assault Attorney?

Sexual assault is a serious and sensitive matter. You deserve support and guidance, and that includes legal representation. Although you don’t need an attorney, here’s why it’s worth exploring your options.

Complexity of Court Proceedings

Sexual assault laws in California are very complex. But the court processes involved are equally challenging. Procedural mistakes – even small ones – may jeopardize your case. A sexual assault lawyer knows how the court process works and they will help you comply with the rules.

Defenses to Sexual Assault

There are many defenses available to sexual assault charges. For example, the perpetrator might claim they had consent. Or they might claim that a touch was accidental.

An attorney can anticipate what defenses the perpetrator might use. They can explain how to challenge these defenses effectively.

Support and Advocacy

Experienced attorneys can point you towards advocacy services you might find helpful. They can also help you access medical and psychological support you need. Whatever extra support you require, an attorney can steer you in the right direction.

How the May Firm Can Help Sexual Assault Survivors

At the May Firm, we treat every client like a family member. We will do everything we can to support you, from the moment you schedule a consultation. From our team, you can expect: 

  • A warm and friendly welcome whenever you contact us. 
  • Advice tailored to you and your unique situation. 
  • A full and clear explanation of your legal rights and options for moving forward.  
  • Responsive and communicative attorneys.  
  • Respect for your rights to privacy and confidentiality.

Survivors of sexual assault deserve every chance to pursue justice. As your attorney, we will stand at your side throughout the process.

Experienced Sexual Assault Attorneys in California

Are you a sexual assault survivor? Take the next step in your recovery journey. Move forward with confidence – contact the May Firm.

Our experienced personal injury lawyers can help you with any civil claim against the perpetrator. We will treat you with dignity, compassion, and respect. And we’ll ensure that your legal rights are respected.

We’re here for all victims of sexual assault in CA. No matter how complex your case is, don’t hesitate to call us. We’re on your side.

We don’t charge anything unless we win your case. And all first consultations are always free.

So don’t delay. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from calling us.

We’re a phone call away. Reach out now on 866-678-4711 or contact us online.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is provided for general informational purposes only and may not represent the current law in the recipient’s jurisdiction. The article should not be interpreted as professional legal advice from The May Firm or the individual author, nor is the information intended to substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. The article, nor any of the information included, should not be used to act or refrain from acting without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction. Any reliance you place on such information is strictly at your own risk.