Overdue Changes: Defining Rape in the 21st Century

For male and female victims of rape, a few choice words can mean the difference between potential justice and personal agony.  Early this month, the FBI made the following unprecedented changes to the definition of rape, including these assertations:

1) Men can be raped, and

2) Rape does not always involve physical force.

According to a National Crime Victimization Survey that used the updated definition , 80% of all rape victims are under 30 - meaning Generation Y is the most likely to be included in these new statistics. Young adults are also the most likely to benefit from intervention and victim relief.

The FBI’s new definition, in full, describes rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The new definition may be likely to shape public perception about forced oral sex, as well as the rights of men, and transgendered people.

The need for a new definition came in response to calls from police departments and victims’ advocacy groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, to broaden the definition to match the experiences of victims.  Until this month, the FBI worked off 1927 definition in which rape was defined simply as, “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

The word “forcible“ meant that a definitive rape needed to include a victim who physically fought back – that physical resistance was more significant than the lack of consent. “Carnal knowledge” meant only vaginal penetration by a penis would be considered “rape,” so this definition did not reflect rapes that occur as the result of date-rape drugs, or anyone who identified as something other than female.

In modern standards this is not only unfair. This is not true.

But redefining rape is only the first step.  Rape is subject to the broader problem of underreporting. There’s a 60% non-report rate, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). No other crime subjects the victim to more scrutiny, or blames the victim for somehow inviting it. (For what robbery would look like if it were treated by popular culture the same way rape is, see this meme.)

Nicholas Kristof wrote in the comment section of an article about the abysmal rate of rape kit analysis: “You see women who, particularly if they had been drinking or were assaulted by an acquaintance, felt that to report a rape would be to injure their own reputations without achieving anything.”

Furthermore, the definition does not change harmful city, county, or state laws. Chicago has no rapes in the FBI’s crime statistics because Chicago uses a broader definition than the federal government. In actuality, records suggest a more realistic 1,400 rapes in a year. FBI Director Robert Mueller argued, ”[The old] definition was in some ways unworkable, certainly not applicable — fully applicable — to the types of crimes that it should cover…”

New statistics using this definition will, however, give social scientists and policy makers a better understanding of the true incidence of rape. As the Washington Post notes, “It’s an important shift because lawmakers and policymakers use crime statistics to allocate money and other resources for prevention and victim assistance.”

I asked on my Facebook wall what people thought of the new rape definition that the FBI created.

“Long Over Due!” said Kati of St. Kitts and Nevis. My friend Robert, of Lake View, NY replied, “I disagree, it’s not long overdue. It’s WAAAYYYYYY long overdue,”

If you, or someone you know, has been the victim of any sort of sexual assault, there are rape crisis centers, and even an online hotline to turn to. Also, Pandora’s Project has a list of resources and a helpful article called “What to do if you are raped”.

Christine Slocum I am an imperfect person (though I prefer "work in progress"). In 25 years I have managed to become a graduate student in sociology, a Unitarian Universalist, vegan, social activist and the wife of my best friend. Originally from Syracuse, NY, I now live in Seattle, WA with aforementioned best friend and two dog-like cats.

View all posts by Christine Slocum

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