Sexual Tourism

Sexual tourism is the transporting of individuals who are under the age of 18 years old in interstate commerce and with the intent of engaging them in prostitution and is illegal under federal law 18 U.S.C. 2423. It is also unlawful under this statute for a person to travel, whether inside the U.S. or out of the country, for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct. These crimes are considered to be forms of human trafficking and so are severely penalized, as the former is punishable by no less than ten years in prison, while the latter could result in a 30-year prison sentence.

What Qualifies as Illicit Sexual Conduct?

Before a person can be convicted of sexual tourism, prosecutors must demonstrate that they traveled in either interstate or foreign commerce with the purpose of engaging in or forcing a minor to engage in illicit sexual conduct. According to the statute, illicit sexual conduct means a sexual act with a person under the age of 18 years old that, if it had occurred in U.S. jurisdiction, would be a violation of federal law. A number of actions can fall under the category of a sexual act if they involve:
  • Contact between the penis and the vulva or anus
  • Contact between the mouth and the penis, the vulva, or the anus
  • Penetration by any object with the intent to abuse, degrade or arouse sexual desire
  • The intentional touching, not through the clothing, of the genitals of another person who is under the age of 16 years old, with the intent to abuse, harass, or gratify sexual desire
However, these are not the only acts that constitute illicit sexual conduct under federal law. In fact, any commercial sex act, which means any sex act for which anything of value is given or received, with someone under the age of 18 years old also qualifies as illicit sexual conduct for the purposes of a sexual tourism charge. The final act qualifying as illicit sexual contact is the production of child pornography, which involves the directing, manufacturing, advertising, or publishing of any visual depiction, including photos, movies, pictures, or computer images, regardless of whether they were made by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct, where:
  • The production involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct
  • The visual depiction is a digital or computer-generated image that is indistinguishable from a minor engaging in sexual conduct
  • The visual depiction was created or modified to appear as though an identifiable minor was involved in sexually explicit conduct.
An identifiable minor is defined as someone:
  • Who was a minor at the time that the depiction was created
  • Whose image as a minor was used in creating or modifying the visual depiction
  • Who is recognizable as an actual person by his or her likeness or another distinguishing characteristic
However, prosecutors are not required to provide proof of the minor’s actual identity in order to satisfy this definition.

Related Offenses

A person can also be prosecuted under the federal tourism statute if he or she arranges for, induces, or facilitates the travel of a person, knowing that the individual is traveling in either interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct. In order to be convicted of this specific offense, there must also be evidence demonstrating that the defendant took the action for the purpose of private financial gain or commercial advantage. Even attempting any of these offenses is punishable as though the crime were completed.

Investigations and Prosecutions

Sexual tourism offenses are investigated by the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS), which also works with a number of other federal agencies, including:
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • The Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations (ICE)
  • The High Technology Investigative Unit (HTIU)
  • United States Attorney’s Offices across the country
Investigations are also often undertaken jointly with foreign governments and law enforcement personnel. Like most federal crimes, sexual tourism crimes are aggressively prosecuted across the nation and often lead to multiple decades in prison and mandatory registration on the national sex offender registry website.


There are some specific defenses available to those who have been accused of exploiting others through sexual tourism. For example, unlike many other sex-related offenses, defendants who have been charged with sexual tourism involving a minor may be able to escape harsher penalties if they can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that they reasonably believed that the person with whom they were engaging in a commercial sex act was over the age of 18 years old.
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