Defending a “Sexual Tourism” Charge


One of the laws many people are unfamiliar with is the federal criminal statute prohibiting “sexual tourism.” Because of its relative obscurity, it’s all the more reason for everyone to understand precisely what conduct is illegal under the sexual tourism statute and how severe the penalties can be.  


Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law in Tampa, have extensive experience defending Floridians charged with sex-related offenses in federal court. We believe that every client should know about the laws that apply to their alleged conduct before they are forced to confront them in a court of law. This blog post is intended to educate the community about how the law works. 



What Is Sexual Tourism?


Federal law (18 U.S. Code § 2423) provides for the criminal prosecution of anyone who travels across state or international borders intending to engage in “illicit sexual conduct” with a person under 18 years of age. This section of the U.S. Criminal Code law also encompasses the transportation of anyone under 18 across state lines or international borders for the purpose of prostitution or to engage in any other sexual activity for which a person can be charged with a criminal offense.  


The law is especially powerful because it makes it illegal for any U.S. citizen or non-naturalized permanent resident to travel in interstate commerce to any foreign country with “a motivating purpose” to engage in “illicit sexual conduct” with someone else. Even U.S. citizens and permanent U.S. residents living in a foreign country who engage in illicit sexual conduct while there can be prosecuted under this law’s long-arm jurisdiction. 


It’s important to note that one needs only to have “a motivating purpose” of engaging in illicit sexual conduct when traveling to a foreign country; it does not need to be the sole or primary purpose. The law previously provided for the prosecution of someone who traveled “for the purpose” of performing such activity. However, the statute was amended to make prosecution possible when a defendant had illicit sexual activity as one of their purposes for traveling to another country. 


What Is “Illicit Sexual Conduct?” 


The phrase “illicit sexual conduct” includes any sexual act with a person under 18 years old which would be illegal if it occurred within the territorial boundaries of the United States or its possessions. Federal prosecutors would need to prove the facts beyond a reasonable doubt, just as they do with all crimes prosecuted in the United States. The burden of proof is not lowered merely because the alleged criminal acts took place on foreign soil. 


Some of the illegal acts covered by the anti-sexual tourism statute include the following: 

  • penetration or contact by the penis with the vulva or anus involving a minor, 
  • contact by the mouth with the penis, vulva, or anus involving a minor, 
  • penetration by any object with the intent to degrade, abuse, or arouse sexual desire, 
  • intentionally touching the genitals of another person under the age of 16, inside the clothing, with intent to abuse, harass, or experience sexual gratification. 




The law also includes as “illicit sexual conduct” any act of prostitution with a person under 18 years old to be criminal, including any time something of value is given to or received from such a minor in exchange for sexual activity.  


Child Pornography 


The production of child pornography is another form of “illicit sexual activity” punishable under the sexual tourism law. This criminal activity includes directing, manufacturing, publishing, or advertising any depiction of a minor engaged in sexual activity, regardless of whether the image depicts an actual minor child or a mechanically or electronically created image appearing to be a minor child performing sexual activity. 


Criminal liability under the sexual tourism laws also applies to those who knowingly conspire to arrange or facilitate another person’s travel or other conduct that violates the statute.  


Penalties for Violating Sexual Tourism Laws 


Penalties for violating the sexual tourism law are extremely severe. If convicted of engaging in international travel for illicit sexual conduct with a minor, a defendant can be sentenced to federal prison for up to 30 years and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. A similar sentence faces those convicted of knowingly assisting, facilitating, or arranging for sexual tourism, referred to as sexual tour operators. These individuals can also receive prison sentences of up to 30 years. 


A second conviction under these sections of the sexual tourism laws can result in a sentence of life in federal prison. 


Importing child pornography produced in a foreign country can result in a 15-year prison sentence.  


Read More > False Allegations of Sex Crimes in Florida  


Defending Sexual Tourism Charges 


One of the key legal defenses available to persons facing federal prosecution for sexual exploitation of a minor in the context of the sexual tourism statute involves the “reasonable knowledge” of the minor’s age. 


Under the statutory language included in the sexual tourism laws, a defendant may avoid the harsh penalties if they can prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that they reasonably believed the person with whom they engaged in sexual activity in another country was older than the age covered by the statute. This defense is unusual and is typically not available for any similar sexual crimes involving a minor within the United States. 


For experienced sex crime defense, lean on our experienced lawyers at Stechschulte Nell Law. We are on your side and are available 24/7 to take your call. Contact us at 813-280-1244.  

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