18 Sep 23

18 U.S.C. § 2241 – Aggravated sexual abuse

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Last Updated on: 19th September 2023, 12:46 am

18 U.S.C. § 2241 – Aggravated Sexual Abuse

Aggravated sexual abuse refers to certain federal crimes involving sexual acts with children under 12 or forceful sexual acts. 18 U.S.C. § 2241 criminalizes aggravated sexual abuse in areas of federal jurisdiction. This includes crossing state lines, federal prisons, and U.S. territories. Section 2241 can lead to stiff penalties, including life imprisonment for offenders.

This article examines the key elements of § 2241 aggravated sexual abuse charges. It also covers sentencing, definitions, and how the law developed. Let’s break down this important federal statute.

Key Elements of § 2241

To be convicted under § 2241, the government must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • The defendant crossed a state line with intent to engage in a sexual act with a child under 12, or
  • The defendant engaged in a sexual act with another by force or threat, and
  • The sexual act occurred in a federal prison or otherwise within federal jurisdiction.

The statute covers three main situations: interstate travel to abuse a young child, federal prisons, and other areas of federal jurisdiction like territories. The definition of “sexual act” is graphic and includes contact between genitals and mouth, as well as penetration.

Penalties and Sentencing

Section 2241 aggravated sexual abuse carries stiff penalties upon conviction:

  • 30 years to life in prison if no permanent injury.
  • Life imprisonment if permanent injury or death.
  • Fines and 5 years to lifetime supervised release.

Sentences can be enhanced further based on the defendant’s prior record. Parole has been abolished for federal sentences. The average prison term served for § 2241 convictions is around 25 years.

Interstate Travel to Abuse a Child

One way to violate § 2241 is by traveling interstate with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor. This applies to travel between states, territories, and tribal lands. The government must show the defendant:

  • Traveled in interstate or foreign commerce, and
  • Intended at time of travel to sexually abuse a child under 12.

The government does not need to prove an actual sexual act occurred. Simply crossing state lines with the requisite intent is enough. This reflects Congress’s broad power to regulate interstate commerce.

Federal Prisons

Section 2241 also prohibits aggravated sexual abuse in federal prisons. This commonly occurs via:

  • Inmate-on-inmate abuse
  • Guard-on-inmate abuse

For federal prisons, § 2241 prohibits:

  • Engaging in a sexual act by force or threat, or
  • Engaging in a sexual act with someone unable to consent, like a child.

Prison officials have a duty to protect inmates from sexual abuse under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. But § 2241 remains an important tool to prosecute aggravated abuse behind bars.

Other Areas of Federal Jurisdiction

In addition to interstate travel and federal prisons, § 2241 prohibits aggravated sexual abuse in other areas subject to federal jurisdiction. This includes:

  • Native American reservations
  • Military bases and vessels
  • National parks, federal buildings, and federal lands
  • U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Section 2241 allows federal prosecution of serious sexual abuse that may otherwise go unpunished under state or tribal law. Federal jurisdiction fills an important gap in these areas.


Like other crimes, § 2241 charges are subject to general criminal defenses. Common defenses in aggravated sexual abuse cases include:

  • Consent – the sexual act was consensual, not forced
  • Mistake of age – the defendant reasonably believed the minor was over 16
  • Diminished capacity – a mental condition prevented forming criminal intent
  • Intoxication – the defendant was too impaired to form intent

However, these defenses face an uphill battle given the nature of the crime. Defendants may also seek various pretrial motions to suppress evidence or dismiss the charges.

Relation to Other Sex Crimes

Section 2241 is part of a broader framework of federal sex offenses in 18 U.S.C. Chapter 109A. Other key federal sex crimes include:

  • § 2242 – Sexual abuse (not aggravated)
  • § 2243 – Sexual abuse of a minor or ward
  • § 2244 – Abusive sexual contact
  • § 2245 – Offenses resulting in death

Section 2241 defines the most serious tier of federal sexual abuse offenses. The other provisions cover related abusive sexual conduct that does not rise to the level of aggravated abuse. State laws also address various degrees of sex offenses.

History of § 2241

Congress enacted the first version of § 2241 as part of the Sexual Abuse Act of 1986.