Guide to Laws About Sex, Sexual Activity, and Sexual Violence in California

Female crime victim

Most of the following sex-related crimes such as sexual harassment, prostitution, and consensual sex in public are punishable by a fine of $1,000 and/or no more than 6 months in jail.1Cal Penal Code 647

Where a crime involves a child under 18, the fine is up to $5,000 and/or no more than 1 year in jail.2Cal Penal Code 647.6 However, more serious crimes like rape have much more severe penalties, specified below.

If you are a victim of a crime, see our Victims Rights page.

1. Age of Consent

What is the age of consent in California?

In California it is a crime to have sex with another person under the age of 18 years old (who is not their spouse). This crime is known as “statutory rape.”

It does not matter if you thought the other person was at least 18, or even if they told you they were.3Cal Penal Code Sec 261.5

2. Sex work & Prostitution

Is it illegal to have sex for money?

Yes. It’s a crime either to engage in sex work (prostitute yourself) or to hire a prostitute.4Cal Penal Code Sec 647(b)

Can simply possessing condoms be used as evidence of prostitution?

No.5SB 357, Evidence Code 782.1

Is it illegal to loiter in public with the intent to engage in prostitution?

No.6SB 357

3. Sex in public

Is it illegal to have sex with another consenting adult in public?

Yes. Sex between consenting adults in public is a crime.7Cal Penal Code Sec 647(a)

Is it illegal to “cruise” for sex?

It’s a crime to “loiter” or hang around public bathrooms to try to have sex with someone, whether it is consensual or not.8Cal Penal Code Sec 647(d)

4. Sexual Harassment & Rape

What sexual harassment is illegal?

All of the following are crimes punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 6 months in jail (though in some cases it could be considered a more serious crime with more severe punishment):

  • Engaging in “lewd conduct” in public, which includes making explicit sexual comments or “catcalls” towards others, or obscene or sexual gestures.9Cal Penal Code Sec 647(a)
  • Indecent exposure: when someone exposes or “flashes” his/her genitals to another person in public.10Cal Penal Code 314
  • When someone physically gropes you or touches you in a sexually inappropriate way, it is a crime called “sexual battery.”11Cal Penal Code 234.4(e); you can also sue for sexual battery under Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.5

If you experience sexual harassment by your employer, it’s also a violation of employment law.12CA Govt Code Sec. 12940(j)(1), (3)

Is it illegal to remove a condom during sex without consent?

Yes, California is the first state to prohibit “stealthing,” or removing a condom without permission during sexual intercourse. The act of stealthing has been added to the state’s definition of sexual battery.

What is rape?

The criminal offense of rape is defined in California as “sexual intercourse” without the victim’s consent.13Penal Code Sec 261, 262

However, “all forms of nonconsensual sexual assault may be considered rape for purposes of the gravity of the offense and the support of survivors.”14Penal Code Sec 263

Do rape kits need to be tested within a certain time frame?

Sexual assault evidence collected through rape kits must be submitted to a crime lab within 20 days and must be tested within 120 days (4 months).15SB 22 (2019)

Can rape or sexual assault be punished many years later?

For any rape that occurs in California on or after Jan 1, 2017, the suspect can be prosecuted at ANY time. In other words, there is NO “statute of limitations” on rape.16Penal Code Sec 799

For a sexual assault that occurred in California when the victim was a minor, they can report it until they are 40 years old, or within 5 years of the date they discover or reasonably should have discovered that the psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by sexual assault, whichever is later.17AB 218

5. Public nudity

Is it illegal to simply be naked in public?

It’s complicated, and it varies by city. See our Guide to Laws about Sex in the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco area.

6. “Peeping Tom” or Hidden Camera

What are the peeping tom laws?

See our Guide to Privacy Laws.

7. Posting nude photos or video of someone on the Internet

Is it illegal for a blog or magazine to pay a photographer to get nude photos of a person without their consent?

Yes. It’s illegal to pay someone who took nude photos of a person, knowing that the pictures were taken in violation of the person’s privacy (see above), and then post the pictures online (or otherwise distribute them).18Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.8(f)(1)

But it is NOT illegal for a different person to repost the photos once they have already been posted.19Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.8(f)(3)

What is revenge porn?

Revenge porn is if you agree to have someone take nude pictures of you, where you have an understanding that the photos will remain private, and later that person posts the photos online (or otherwise send them to people) intending to cause you emotional harm (assuming this made you emotionally distressed). 20SB255, codified at Cal Penal Code Sec 647(j) It is a crime with the possibility of up to 6 months in jail and/or $1,000 fine; may suspend driver license. You can also sue a person for it.21AB2643, to be codified at Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.85

What is a deepfake and is it illegal?

Californians can now sue if someone makes a fake video or photo (aka “deepfake”) that shows them in a sex act.22AB 602 (2019)

8. Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Is it illegal to have sex with someone and not tell them I have an STD?

Not exactly. It is a crime only if you intend to infect someone with HIV or any “infectious or communicable disease,” and you have sex with or do other things with that person that increase the risk that the person will be infected, and that person does not know you have that disease.

If that person actually becomes infected, the penalty is a maximum of 6 months in jail. If the person does NOT actually become infected, the penalty is a maximum of 90 days in county jail.23CA Health and Safety Code Sec 120290; (Note: Prior to Jan 2018 this was considered a felony with a penalty of up to 8 years in jail)

Is it illegal to try to get someone else to infect a person with a disease?

Yes. Similarly to the above, it is a crime if you intend to infect a person with a disease, and you cause a third party who has that disease do something “risky” to the intended target, and then the person gets infected. The penalty is up to 6 months in jail.24CA Health and Safety Code Sec 120290

9. Sex with police officers

Is it illegal for police officers to have sex with someone in their custody?

In California it is illegal for law enforcement to have sex with a person they have arrested or detained, even if consensual.

But many other states do NOT have this law. See the Feb 2018 Buzzfeed story on this.

10. Sex with animals

Is it illegal to have sex with animals?

Yes, see our Guide to Animal Rights.

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