By Any Other Name — Redefining Rape

Earlier this month, the FBI made big news when it announced that the Uniform Crime Report’s (UCR) definition of rape will be revised to provide more comprehensive statistical reporting of rape in the United States.

The change has been a long time coming. The Women’s Law Project has been working with women’s rights groups around the country for 10 years to get the definition of rape changed.

Why is this change such an important development?

It’s important because the new definition will result in a more accurate assessment of the extent of sexual assault in the U.S.

The old definition of rape was gender specific and excluded many instances of sexual assault with its narrow definition. Using this definition, sexual assault of a male was not considered rape, even though nearly three million men in the U.S. have survived sexual assault. The old definition also disregarded the assault of someone who was passed out from using alcohol or drugs. As a result of the narrow definition, the national incidence of rape has been grossly underreported by the FBI.

The FBI has been using a definition from 1929 in which rape is defined as the “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” The U.S Department of Justice now defines rape as “the 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.” You can see what a big change this new definition of rape represents.

As Gina Simmons writes in this Forbes article, “The new wording covers victims and perpetrators of any gender and includes instances in which the victim is unconscious, disabled, under the influence of drugs, or too young to give consent.”

Locally, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault applauds the new definition of rape. In this piece, Cara Courchesne, Communications and Outreach Coordinator for MECASA, notes that the revised definition more accurately reflects the criminal code and “provides a better understanding of the scope of rape in our society.”

Thanks to the hard work of MECASA and its member organizations, Maine is one of many states with very comprehensive laws regarding sexual violence. The new FBI definition of rape will bring federal record keeping methods up to date so they conform to the way most states are already reporting these crimes.

Like MECASA, the FPA is hopeful that the new definition of rape will increase awareness of the extent of sexual assault and intimate partner violence in our communities.

While the U.S. Department of Justice action will have positive impact on a national, large-scale level, there is much that each of us can do when it comes to the issue of rape. In her Forbes article, Gina Simmons offers a list of the things an individual can do, including:

  • Get educated about sexual violence
  • Volunteer or advocate for survivors
  • Challenge your stereotypes and try to empathize with the survivor
  • Support legislation to prevent sexual violence
  • Let survivors know you care and you’re ready to listen

I like this list for its variety and range of actions. Simmons brings the issue down to a personal level and points out that there’s something each of us can do.

~ Nancy

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